Food.

So, I’ve decided to get real and dedicate an entire page of this blog to what is probably the most interesting part of being here: Sichuan’s cuisine. Wow. When we first arrived in Beijing, every single person we ran into said, “Chengdu? Oh, man. You’re going to love the food.” For newcomers in a place like this, it’s hard to imagine anything being totally inviting. But, they were right – it really is pretty outstanding. Forget anything you think you know about China via those glutinous piles of shredded whatever with salty brown sauce, forget the soggy deep-fried mystery meat in dayglo sweet-and-sour pink. Forget thoughtless presentation rendered unidentifiable by being crammed into a red-printed white cardboard carton with a flimsy wire handle. Forget, even, potstickers and mushu pancakes, some of the best artifacts of real Chinese epicurial talents to have survived in mainstream U.S. culture. Sichuanese food is wild and varied and fresh and exciting and unlike anything we have ever seen, smelled, or tasted. Familiar vegetables are given completely new identities here, not to mention the things they do with fish. This food, even at its most basic, mundane, street-snack level (usually gone unnoticed or underappreciated by the locals) is the cohesive logic, the ancient knowledge, the complex artistry, and the expressive riot that are so markedly absent in contemporary Chinese life. The risk-taking and sensuality that are missing in so many other aspects of this culture’s modern expression are to be found, subtly evinced but readily accessible and ever-present, in its food.

First, a couple of pieces of etiquette:

1. Stop holding your chopsticks in the middle. I know that feels like it gives you more control, but just try pushing them forward in your hand until the ends of them barely graze that inside curve between your index finger and thumb. It will be a little unwieldy at first, but eventually will give you a greater sense of grace and maneuverability. Think of them as long, elegant extensions of your fingers, and you are daintily selecting exactly which tasty thing you’d like to transport to your bowl or mouth next. (Only children hold them in the middle – until they gain the skills…as we found out from some tactful but chuckling acquaintances over huge platters of spicy carp one evening).

2. The different dishes stay in the middle of the table so that everyone can eat from them. Your bowl is for moving things from the dishes to your own eating area, not just for soup. Take a few things from one or two dishes and put them in your bowl, then eat from that. You don’t need a plate. This allows you to think a little more clearly about what is going into your mouth, rather than just shoveling it all in together or at once. It’s a savory art – a savoring art.

3. Guess what? Rice does not go under the main dishes, as you, I, and everyone else in the Western world has previously thought. In fact, just try getting rice to come with your meal in China. Impossible. We thought they were being rude at first, or at best, inattentive. In fact, the dishes are there for your enjoyment and nutrition. Rice is really for neither. Rice is served at the end of the meal – if you are still hungry after eating the other, tastier, healthier things, then you are free to top off the tank with a couple of bowls of rice. It’s starch – to fill you up. Nothing more. And, you’ll notice, putting it under your food dilutes the flavors of the dish itself. Check it out.

4. Eat your vegetables. A typical meal here will involve several starter dishes (as many as four or five for only two people), generally involving vegetables alone, or with some slightly meaty variation. On more than one occasion we have ordered our dishes, along with some intense numb-hot fish creation with sour vegetables, and have been disappointed when the fish didn’t arrive – we filled up on the starters and were just getting that perfectly satisfied, top-it-off-with-a-few-bites-of-rice feeling, when along came an enormous and sizzling platter of extravagantly crafted carp/eel/finny-thing, and we had to continue eating for another 25 minutes. I know, cry me a river. But still – the variety and thoughtfulness showcased in these smaller dishes really puts most other cuisines to shame. A good server will provide guidance, as well, to ensure that you’re not ordering too many things that excite the same area of the tongue – they will be careful to get you the spicy, the sour, the bitter, the sweet, the salty – and add a few unexpected ones: the strange, the oceanic, the marshy, the scary, the fermented…

5. Be polite. It is customary, especially when dining in someone’s home, to leave some food on the serving dish. There is no “clean-plate club” in China. In fact, contrary to the guilt-driven horror stories told to children in the West about how they have to finish their meal because other children just like them are starving in China, there is a tremendous amount of food-waste here. People order lots and lots and lots of food. It’s cheap, it’s fantastic, and it is not at all uncommon to order a dish only to eat a few bites of it for palate-cleansing or -invigorating. If you eat everything from all of your host’s serving dishes, it implies scarcity, as if they were unable to provide you with an overabundance of food, and therefore they failed as caretakers and hosts. It’s like a nation of grandmothers all trying to fatten you up. The polite thing to do is to stop eating while there are still token morsels left on a dish, and then move on to the rice, which is always available in copious amounts, and usually comes in an open-topped vat made of wooden slats and coopered in wide, riveted iron bands – an old-timey touch that I love.

6. Shout. The idea of “service” is different here – they’re not neglectful, so much as into giving you your space. It is expected that, if you need something – a napkin, a new chopstick to replace the one you just dropped on the floor, another platter of sauteed lettuce, the check – that you will simply yell: “Fuyuan! FUYUAN!” (server) or maybe even “Laoban!” (a title akin to host or perhaps, inappropriately, maitre d). I have to admit, I am still struggling with this aspect of dining in public. In my culture, it’s rude – I worked service industry far too long to enjoy hollering at a waitress, regardless of how they may or may not feel about it.

I have decided to keep a running list of interesting meals that we have. I wish I had started earlier, as there have already been some doozies – from “cold cake” (glutinous rice blob served streetside in a plastic cup, drowned in the most heavenly, so-spicy-it-makes-you-cough, garlicky soya-based sauce ever, ) to “slither soup” – a clay pot filled with hot red broth liberally spiked with huajiao, the Sichuanese numbing pepper – ecstatic – and an enormous, slippery clump of enoki mushrooms, clear, teeny rice noodles, and intertwined with it all: skinned eels. Think…snakes. You dip in your chopsticks, pull up a clump of noodles, and half a dozen garden-sized, peeled snakes slip in and out from between the strands. Challenging. I believe Paul’s comment was, “What is this, a POW camp?” The broth and noodles were lovely.

**As this is a separate page from the chronological blog, updates will occur at the bottom of this section – if you are interested, check in periodically for new menus.

Sunday, September 30

Last night, after wandering around our favorite neighborhood – Kehua Beilu, near the west gate of Sichuan University – we were tired and feeling a little cranky and done with not knowing anything about anything. You have moments like that, you know – overall, you can be having the best adventure of your life, but every once in a while, you wish you could walk into a restaurant and know what to do, at least, or know how to get exactly what you want, like mac and cheese, or some mashed potatoes. In any case, we had just caught someone trying (and nearly succeeding) to steal my bike, and I was tired and wanted food. Imagine a street bustling with Saturday night action – men in button down shirts, smoking, staring, cars parked all over the sidewalk, girls in short skirts and scooters zipping the wrong way down a busy avenue, the street lit up and flashing like Vegas. We picked a place because it had a fish on the sign, and water running down its windows – a very soothing and clean-looking effect. Inside, we experienced the usual chaos that is ordering in reverse: Do you have this? Do you have this? No. No. No. Sorry. No. Fortunately, the two servers we had in attendance were both very patient and seemed to enjoy the challenge of the interaction. I was able to let them know that we would only eat vegetables and fish – no pork, beef, or chicken (or dog, or cat, or…) We told them we liked spicy things, and that we couldn’t read the menu. They were enormously helpful, and eventually even moved us over by the window-waterfall, which was nice and seemed incredibly generous, until they turned the water off and we decided that they were, in fact, “displaying” us to passersby, hoping that the presence of Westerners in their establishment may give them some extra street cred. They asked if we wanted ice in our beer, which, it turns out, means “cold,” so after a warm one we agreed to “ice.”

Our menu:
– Braised water spinach with chilies, huajiao, garlic and ginger
Water spinach is a typical green except that its stalk is much longer than on, say, regular spinach, and it is hollow and just as tasty as the leaves, which are relatively small. It is dark green and usually served more or less whole, in great piles – they sautee it in light oil and preserve its released juices, and swish it around with ginger, garlic, and both hot and numbing peppers, though these add only a faint and delicate kick in this particular dish.

Hu-pi Chaojiao Literally, “Tiger-skin fried peppers”
This is one of our favorites. They take mild to medium-hot green peppers, somewhere around the size of an anaheim or banana pepper, cut them into two or three pieces each, grill them till the skins are crispy (tiger-skin), and then douse them in a sour-salty brew made from thickened dark vinegar and sesame oil. Yum. It is very common, and the slight variations from establishment to establishment make it a frequent order of ours.

– Bokchoy with sweet paste
This was relatively unimaginative. The bok choy were a little overcooked, and I’m not terrifically fond of their sweet brown sauce, but we have had spectacular variations on this that used peanut sauce, instead.

– Shredded potatoes
You would never know there were potatoes in this dish. They are shredded to look almost like radish strands, and then are quick-sauteed with a mild broth and equally-finely shredded hot green chilies. They only cook the potatoes to al dente, so the result is a mildly crunchy, blissfully spicy and clean dish that goes well with richer things like the peppers.

– Xiangjiao flatbread
Wow. This was our first time having anything like this. We saw a version of it float past our table to a neighboring diner, and immediately told the waiter that we wanted one. It looks more Middle-Eastern than Chinese, and the flavors are all familiar but in surprising combination. It’s like a giant crepe, or perhaps more like a tortilla – imagine the thinnest version of Lebanese bread that you can conjure, complete with the blackened bubbles from contact with the oven, and then fill it with mashed bananas, honey, and sesame seeds. Fold it over, and slice it like bruschetta, or a square personal-sized pizza. Outstanding.

– Mystery main dish
We thought we were getting fish, but the late-coming main course was too dense and large-boned for anything water-based. It was beautifully-seasoned chunks of mystery meat mixed at the table with thick sticky rice and heavy spices. We politely picked out the meat and enjoyed the rice, which was tasty and unusual.

– Various condiments
Some (nicer) restaurants serve a variety of little tiny side-things that we are never quite sure what to do with. A common one, which we enjoy, is the pink salted radish-pickles. Last night we had some newcomers, as well: a little dish of something dark green, the consistency of algae and tasting of swamp muck and ferment – in the best way possible; a miniature crock of vegetable broth, in which floated two pieces of carrot and a thin wheel of corn-on-the-cob; a creamy, dreamy teabowl filled with some milky sweet coconutty liquid and little tapioca pearls.

We left full but not too full – no rice other than the weird stuff that came with the mystery “fish.” No one stole my bike. We rode home in the rain.

Advertisements

5 Responses to “Food.”

  1. I didn’t realize how learning about food could be so intimately revealing about a
    culture. This addition to your blog adds so much depth to my understanding and appreciation of the people of Chengdu.

  2. Yum!

  3. In Japan, where I lived for 11 years, one uses the rice in it’s bowl (being held aloft in one hand with the chop sticks in the other) as a sort of drip & debri catcher, which when one is inclined makes an intermittently tasty morsel in-between bites of the main dishes.

  4. Lara, What a wonderful blog! My love for food grows daily. I love to cook, read and enjoy meals others have prepared! When you return we will need to create a true Chinese vs. Jamaican meal together! Sounds interesting….yes! We shall do this! What fun! I can’t wait to see you and meet your sweet hubby! Keep safe and know that I am TRULY enjoying every minute of your blog – you are so talented! My true friendship and love, Jamie

  5. Lara,
    I love this entry, especially the introduction. I would like to quote you or link to this on my website. Is that ok? I’d also like to pick your brain on a couple of other things if you have time. Thanks! Taylor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s