Chengdu is the capitol of Sichuan province and well-renowned as having the best food in China. But for our naive Western palates, eating in Chengdu has been both a delicious and slightly hair-raising experience. Here’s our pocket guide to eating and drinking, Chengdu-style:
FRUIT: the fruit here is amazing in its variety and consistently delicious. Tart and sweet mandarin oranges abound on every street corner and fill bicycle-drawn flatbed carts with a burst of orange color. Giant pomelos take time to disassemble but their grapefruit flesh is well worth the effort, and exotic kiwis hide a red center and a raspberry-like tang.
SOUP: the soup that accompanies nearly every lunch and dinner is suggestive of a vat of congealed water (if there can be such a thing?) with the treat of the day floating within. This can be anything from seaweed to beef bones to last night’s centerpiece, lamb liver! We try to avoid sampling the soups, but our Chinese hosts seem to down them with gusto. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.
BBQ: Our experience with BBQ is limited to last night’s celebration, but I’m going to go ahead and say it: goat meat on a spit! The party included an indoor country meal (dinner #1) with many beer/wine toasts, thank yous, and a lot of laughing from our training students. Then we went outside for a big bonfire complete with dancing, games, and firejumping, followed by dinner #2: salty goat meat, cut fresh off the bone with a knife. It doesn’t get realer than this, folks. Yum!
LIQUIDS: As was to be expected, tea features a major role in the Chinese diet. At the school, strategically-located metal vats dispense hot water from a spigot all day long, and cups and green tea leaves are never far from sight. Our hostess, Li, has a magical tea set that dispenses a never ending stream of earthy Pu’er tea as we sit in the living room and discuss the day. Plain water, however, is less easy to find. The Chinese don’t seem to serve water with meals, and drinking cold water is believed to be unhealthy, so we’ve learned to ask for water and expect a teapot of warm H20 served with a quizzical look from our waiter. Today, I practiced the word for water that I learned from the 8th graders yesterday: something like, “Schway.” It worked!
HOT PEPPER: If we had a yuan for every warning about dishes containing the famous Sichuan pepper being “very very hot!”, we could easily afford a delicious dinner of spicy chicken with my new favorite ingredient: hot chili oil. Xiao V tells us that they eat Sichuan pepper to balance the heat with the cool and foggy Chengdu weather. So far, the spice hasn’t lived up to the tongue-scorching, eye-bugging heat of the super-hot salsa we can find in San Francisco. Instead, it fills the mouth with a warm, numbing flavor that travels down the throat to fill the belly with a slow-burning fire. Our Chinese hosts have watched in horrified fascination as I pile peppers and spoon oil over everything else in my bowl, but as I continue to go back for seconds and thirds, their worry turns into respect. Yes, I can handle the heat!
Sichuan food is full of fish, vegetables and nuts that lend a healthy counterbalance to its many meat dishes. Kale, green onion, black beans and peas are delicious and fresh, cashews and peanuts add crunch, and perfectly cooked rice forms the base for a delicious and varied cuisine. I can’t wait to see what we eat tomorrow! Still on the list are traditional Dan Dan noodles and hotpot, the spiciest specialty of them all.