The Good Food of Sichuan

Sichuan peppercorns at the wholesale spice market

Sichuan peppercorns at the wholesale spice market

By Jean and Peter Richards

Travelers often go to Chengdu to see the giant black and white pandas. We went to eat the food for which Sichuan Province is rightly renown — bite-sized, dry cooked chicken enrobed in a blanket of spicy red chillies, silky white tofu colorfully braced by a fragrant and peppery broth, freshly made noodles tossed in spoonfuls of chili.

It was fabulous — not just the fiery experience one is led to expect, but imminently palatable and incredibly cheap for the Western gourmet. Seven yuan or a little more than a dollar for subtle little seafood dumplings in redolent broth; 90 yuan or $15 for a meal worthy of a fine dining experience in London or New York.

Fuchsia Dunlopʼs Sharkʼs Fin and Sichuan Pepper lit the spark. This erudite Englishwoman became the first westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. She writes so evocatively and enthusiastically about her experiences that we had to satisfy our own hunger for more of the taste.

We are fairly advanced in the culinary traditions of China and have had wonderful experiences wandering the country on our own understanding neither Mandarin nor Cantonese, armed only with guides that are always out of date in fast-changing times and maps with confusing translations. But this trip would be different — a food-centered experience in a less touristic area aimed at sampling some of the best local specialties in a megalopolis where even basic communication was often impossible.

A delight to the eye – fresh hot peppers

A delight to the eye – fresh hot peppers

None of this could have happened had we not stumbled upon the blog of a Canadian food writer living in Chengdu. Susan Johnson guides small groups to what she considers the best places.

This petite, unassuming woman who teaches English and writes restaurant reviews has learned Mandarin and knows her food. In four outings, she never missed a beat and was extraordinarily good at matching the choices she made to our expressed interests. With her we traveled the city by taxi, the new metro, motorized cart and on foot to places we never could have found on our own.

First stop was Lung Chao Shou Tea House and Opera House on Hua Xing Zheng Jie , a very attractive tea house with traditional decor and garden.

Chili dumplings

Chili dumplings

Susan ordered some dishes, popped out and quickly returned with guo kui, a flat bread filled with pork and dipped in pork juice all for seven yuan or a bit more than one dollar. It was difficult to set this flavorful treat aside as other snacks began to arrive: a bowl of seafood flavor dumplings which were delicate, subtle in a light broth, a bowl of chao shu (dumplings) with meat in a medium chili sauce perfectly balanced for flavor.

At Xio Tan Dou Hua just in from Tai Shing Nan Lu, the sweet came first — zhong zi, a crunchy baked sticky rice in a slightly caramelized sauce followed by dou hua, a signature Sichuan dish traditionally sold out of the buckets of street vendors. Tofu was broken up in broth redolent of chili and Sichuan peppercorns topped by crunchy soy bean sticks.

Dumplings neatly lined up at the market

Dumplings neatly lined up at the market

The peppercorns with which Sichuan cooking may be most closely associated aren’t peppercorns at all, but berries of a prickly ash tree. The fragrant, citrusy, mouth-tingling qualities pair brilliantly with mild to fiery fresh and dried chillies often essential to traditional dishes. Their unmistakable pungency permeated the chill air of a covered market where exquisitely folded and fresh wonton and other dumplings were being replenished in rows as orderly as the terracotta warriors of Xian. We bought 300 grams of the tingle-inducing peppercorns for 30 yuan.

Momma said there'd be days like this — chickens at the market

Momma said there’d be days like this — chickens at the market

Hardly three hours had passed when we sat down to su jiao mian (spicy sauce noodles) at Zhang Liang Fen, Renmin Lu 30 after leaving the market. The thick, round, fresh noodles absorbed the pleasantly spicy sauce and our attention.

We still regret not standing on the long queue at Gong Ting Tao Su on the street leading to the Wen Shu Buddhist Temple to sample the bakery’s popular salt and pepper walnut cookies.

Sorting leaves at the tea market

Sorting leaves at the tea market

On another day we visited the wholesale tea market in a neighborhood we couldn’t have found on a dare. Women sat over woven pans sorting and de-stemming green leaves. Men presided ceremoniously over the sampling of fabled pu ehr, jasmine, oolong and iron buddha brews. Susan taught us about color, aroma, flavor, “mouth feel” and the healthful properties associated with each. One Iron Buddha which met the standards of her own search smelled like spinach to us.

Chicken with hot peppers

Chicken with hot peppers

The lunch that followed at a restaurant whose name translated as Little Red Pepper introduced us to one of the prettiest, most aromatic dishes anywhere — bian zi ji, dry cooked chicken bits buried under fresh and dried red and green peppers scattered with Sichuan peppercorn and sprigs of green peppercorn.

One dish, which we were told was not traditional, was a fabulous stir fried crispy bacon piled on peppers eaten as a sandwich on panda paw sized steamed buns. It was a winner as were the long beans stir fried with garlic, pepper and pork.

Pork belly (bacon) to be sandwiched in steamed buns

Pork belly (bacon) to be sandwiched in steamed buns

With chicken soup, rice and tea, the bill for this feast for three came to 130 yuan or about $20.80, an amazing sum to a Westerner.

Chengdu is a 14 million inhabitant conurbation. It is sprawling, polluted, scruffy around the edges, burgeoning under construction and fascinating. Tuk tuks greet passengers emerging from new metro lines. Market stalls beckon with abundance yards away from enormous international supermarkets. Auto repair hovels sit catty corner from towering new skyscrapers within which every luxury brand can be found. Temples are oases of serenity; museums are outposts of culture in a city throbbing with commerce. Mao Zedong’s 98-foot-statue looms over colorfully lit Tianfu Square, but it is the giant pandas procreating with all the help they can get within their nearby preserve that garner most tourists’ attention.

We took a day at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center six miles out of town to watch elders and cubs munch on bamboo, then returned to our own gustatory pursuits, this time at Zhang Roast Duck, a restaurant Susan had recommended within walking distance of our hotel. The walk had been easy; the challenge was ordering. Menu pictures sometimes saved us, but not here. Every time one of us pointed something out to the other, the waiter eagerly wrote it on his order list. We were about to give up when a pleasant young man appeared table side and asked, “Can I help?”

The man we thought a good samaritan turned out to be the owner of this popular place.

Ma po tofu and pork belly with mushrooms at Zhang's

Ma po tofu and pork belly with mushrooms at Zhang’s

Happily, we put ourselves in his hands. The special duck soup broth was incredibly rich and had a wonderful bouquet and tender pieces of duck. The ma po tufo was just spicy enough. The vegetable had plenty of garlic. The pork belly with mushrooms was unlike anything we had had anywhere and memorable enough to make a lifetime list of great dishes. Mr. Zhang, who had studied English in Europe, joined us for the kind of wide-ranging and interesting conversation that makes travel an enriching experience.

Kuan, Zhai and Jing Alleys may be dismissed as “too touristy” in Chengdu, but we found these re-conceived traditional neighborhoods which pre-date the highly applauded Xintiandi complex in Shanghai pleasant to walk through if only for a glimpse of the architectural finesse of times past. Beauty seldom seems a consideration as new buildings soar to heights once inconceivable creating yet one more homogenized and soulless urban landscape.

Sizzling tofu in stone pot

Sizzling tofu in stone pot

Far more interesting were leafy neighborhoods where the warm glow of evening light drew people into shops and “fly” restaurants, small local places often serving very good food at very low prices. In one such neighborhood, we met Susan for a farewell meal of sizzling tofu in a stone pot, potatoes and peppers with pork intestines, a young, tender choi sum with ginkgo nuts and chicken viscera and bean jelly.

Choi sum with ginkgo nuts

Choi sum with ginkgo nuts

A day or two may be sufficient on the standard Chengdu panda tour, but nine weren’t nearly enough in which to sample the very good food of Sichuan.

Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards

Susan Johnson’s blog: http://www.eatdrinkchengdu.info

Green beans with bits of pork

Long beans stir fried with garlic, pepper and bits of pork

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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