END­LESS SUM­MER

山城的火辣滋味

The World of Chinese - - Contents -

In Chongqing, the sweat never stops. Some­times it's the in­sane hu­mid­ity, some­times it's the food, and oc­ca­sion­ally it's just all the walk­ing. Whether visit­ing the ver­ti­cal shop­ping street of Hongya Cave, chow­ing down on the fieri­est hot­pot or laz­iji, or catch­ing a glimpse of the bru­tal vi­o­lence of rev­o­lu­tions past, the heat is al­ways on in the city

You can see the ef­fects of the heat be­fore you feel it.

Step­ping off the sub­way at Xiaoshizi, right in the heart of the Yuzhong penin­sula (渝中半岛) that forms the core of Chongqing city, elderly peo­ple and chil­dren prop them­selves up against the walls and stairs of both ex­its, fan­ning them­selves and bid­ing their time.

On reach­ing the top of the stairs, you find out why. Chongqing is con­sid­ered one of the four “fur­naces” of China, along with Wuhan, Nan­jing, and, de­pend­ing who you ask, Chang­sha or Nan­chang. The heat is op­pres­sive; if you’re visit­ing dur­ing sum­mer, you’re go­ing to end up plan­ning whole days around the tem­per­a­ture.

Chongqing is not an easy city to nav­i­gate. Aside from the fact two rivers join at the heart of the city, walk­ing any­where re­quires cov­er­ing al­most as much ver­ti­cal dis­tance as hor­i­zon­tal. Traf­fic, for the most part, is sur­pris­ingly un­con­gested but on the flip side, roads are long and wind­ing. What might be an 800-me­ter trip, as the crow flies, can very eas­ily be­come a five-kilo­me­ter jour­ney around ser­pen­tine trails, even right near the cen­ter of town. (If pos­si­ble, reg­is­ter on a trans­port app like Didi Chux­ing be­fore you go, to avoid roast­ing in the sun while strug­gling to get a cab).

Go­ing by foot may seem a bet­ter way to take in the sights, but be warned— while there are hid­den path­ways on the steep in­clines, the city is in a con­stant frenzy of con­struc­tion; what looks like a path­way on maps is of­ten ob­structed by a build­ing site. You are prob­a­bly go­ing to have to back­track more than once.

Yuzhong is eas­ily the most con­ve­nient lo­ca­tion to stay, as the name ought to make clear. The first char­ac­ter is de­rived from an­other name for Chongqing, 渝 ( y%), which ref­er­ences the an­cient Bayu (巴渝) cul­ture. When you take “渝” and “中” you lit­er­ally get “Chongqing’s mid­dle.”

When book­ing, it’s worth scop­ing out the op­tions to find a room on a high floor: Given Chongqing’s ver­ti­cal na­ture, the views can be spec­tac­u­lar. Tall build­ings emerge from lush fo­liage, look­ing al­most like they are stacked upon one an­other. If you hold an over­seas pass­port, be care­ful though—not ev­ery ho­tel has the nec­es­sary pa­per­work to host for­eign­ers. Ask up­front when book­ing.

Once you’re set­tled in, the next ques­tion is: where to? The first task is prob­a­bly to find some of the city’s cui­sine to try. Chongqing is home to both the fa­mous lo­cal va­ri­ety of hot­pot and laz­iji (辣子鸡, chicken deep-fried in numb­ing spice). If you have a rea­son­able tol­er­ance for chili, it’s al­most a crime to not in­dulge in both while visit­ing. Most of your choices are go­ing to be spicy, though.

Given Chongqing’s in­famy in this area, you could be for­given for as­sum­ing that the his­tory of spicy food

TALL BUILD­INGS EMERGE FROM LUSH FO­LIAGE, LOOK­ING AL­MOST LIKE THEY ARE STACKED UPON ONE AN­OTHER

goes back thou­sands of years, but it wasn’t un­til the 16th cen­tury that chili pep­pers came to China from South Amer­ica via Por­tuguese traders and be­came a hit with lo­cals.

There are var­i­ous rea­sons why. Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine has long in­flu­enced the cook­ing cul­ture, in­clud­ing the be­lief that hu­mid­ity—and its ill ef­fects, such as rheuma­tism—can be coun­ter­acted by spicy food. Some lo­cals will tell you that the sweat gen­er­ated by chili helps flush out tox­ins, and that the spice helps with di­ges­tion (though many din­ers would claim the op­po­site).

Those less en­am­ored with the tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine ex­pla­na­tion point to the preva­lence of spicy food in hu­mid cli­mates around the world, and ar­gue that the spicy in­gre­di­ents served to pro­tect the food against bac­te­ria, while also mask­ing the neg­a­tive taste as­so­ci­ated with spoilage.

In any case, that his­tory doesn’t help you find the best food. Crowd­sourced sites such as Dian­ping.com, how­ever, can.

Many rec­om­mend the cen­trally lo­cated Yangji Longfu (杨记隆府), in the Jiefang­bei dis­trict of Yuzhong, for some of the city’s best fried chicken. Yangji Longfu’s chicken is sim­i­lar to the laz­iji on menus all over the coun­try, but with sub­tle dif­fer­ences. The fried chunks are crum­blier, and a lit­tle less crisp; the fla­vor is stronger, with un­der­tones of gin­ger. Be pre­pared to nib­ble around bones and ex­ca­vate for re­main­ders among piles of chili and fried dough twists ( mahua). Com­pared with some ver­sions of this dish, the lipt­in­gling ma flavour is sub­dued, while the sear­ing la spici­ness is far stronger: Have wa­ter­melon handy to take the edge off, and if your stom­ach is at risk of any ad­verse re­ac­tion, eat plenty of rice.

The other key spicy dish to try is, of course, Chongqing’s in­fa­mous hot­pot—less a dish than a method of cook­ing, with each ta­ble equipped with a pot of spicy soup that they boil as­sorted items in. A hot­pot menu in­cludes ev­ery­thing from quail eggs, fish, and or­gans through to veg­eta­bles, beef, and an ar­ray of sauces to dip the foods in.

Hot­pot restau­rants abound in this city. Lo­cals go for one big pot of spicy soup, po­ten­tially di­vided into nine sec­tions ji­u­gongge (九宫格) so dif­fer­ent things can be cooked at dif­fer­ent speeds, but it’s not nec­es­sary to or­der this un­less you’re a hot­pot ex­pert. Tourists can stick with the yuanyang (鸳鸯) op­tion, a pot which comes split into two sec­tions, with spicy and non­spicy soup (the non-spicy soup is of­ten fla­vored with mush­room, or maybe a light salty stock with dates).

As for what to cook in it, that’s up to the cus­tomer–but if you want to stick with heat all the way, the spice-rubbed beef is a tasty op­tion. As it hap­pens, one of the city’s most pop­u­lar hot­pot restau­rants, Zhiyanhe Hot­pot (纸盐河码头火锅) is also lo­cated at one of the Yuzhong’s most pic­turesque tourist at­trac­tions, Hongya Cave (洪崖洞). Make sure you book ahead, be­cause the restau­rant is in high de­mand.

Hongya Cave it­self is well worth a visit. De­spite the name, this des­ti­na­tion isn’t re­ally a cave—it’s a com­mer­cial area. Part street, part tower, part stair­case, Hongya Cave is taller than it is wide. From the bot­tom, Hongya Cave re­sem­bles a series of wooden

struc­tures try­ing to cling to the side of a cliff. These diao­jiaolou (吊脚楼), “stilt build­ings,” are a tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­tural style of the Bayu cul­ture, thus were con­sid­ered the per­fect item to recre­ate dur­ing a 1990s project to gen­trify the area for tourism. Pre­vi­ously, it had been home to dense fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties packed around the epony­mous cave, though it isn’t an en­tirely re­cent at­trac­tion—at­lases pub­lished back in 1453 des­ig­nated “Eight Scenic Spots of Yu City,” one of which was called “Ver­dant Drops from Hongya” in ref­er­ence to a wa­ter­fall in the area. There’s still a scenic look-out near that wa­ter­fall, though now the view is mostly of a gi­ant bridge stretch­ing over to sky­scrapers on the other side of the river.

The “street” it­self will al­most cer­tainly be crowded, but is worth brows­ing for some lo­cal snack sam­ples or an over­priced drink at one of the bars or cof­fee shops. Even if you choose to stay away from hot­pot on this trip, it’s im­pos­si­ble to es­cape spices en­tirely—en­tire shops are ded­i­cated to lo­cal cook­ing in­gre­di­ents, and their prize prod­ucts are solid blocks of hot­pot soup stock, the chilis clearly vis­i­ble. At the top of Hongya Cave is an exit, so don’t worry about try­ing to nav­i­gate back down through the madding crowds. There are also some nice views of the river at the top. For the best views, how­ever, you will want to take a trip on the fa­mous Yangtze River Cable Car.

This cable car runs from the cen­tral Xiaoshizi area, not too far from Hongya Cave, across to the lesstraf­ficked dis­trict of Nan­binlu on the other side of the river. It’s prob­a­bly wiser to start from the Nan­binlu side to avoid longer queues, so if you are wor­ried about the long wait, your best bet is prob­a­bly to get a taxi to take you there, then come back to the cen­ter of the city via the cable car. Oth­er­wise, you can opt for a round trip from Xiaoshizi and back.

Ei­ther di­rec­tion you take, the car it­self will be stuffed with tourists, so for­ti­tude is needed to push your way to the front or rear and en­joy the views. Like most lo­cal at­trac­tions, it’s cheap,

EVEN IF YOU CHOOSE TO STAY AWAY FROM HOT­POT ON THIS TRIP, IT'S IM­POS­SI­BLE TO ES­CAPE SPICES EN­TIRELY—EN­TIRE SHOPS ARE DED­I­CATED TO LO­CAL COOK­ING IN­GRE­DI­ENTS

Hongya Cave is a pop­u­lar tourist and shop­ping des­ti­na­tion

Bars across the road from Hongya Cave of­fer views of the river at sun­set

Yangji Longfu's

laz­iji is rec­om­mended only for those who can han­dle se­ri­ous spice

The cen­tral area of Yuzhong is packed with shop­ping malls

In oper­a­tion since 1987, the Chongqing cable car is worth the ticket price, if not the crowds

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