Spice Girl of China
Considering the spiciness of its fabled cuisine, Chengdu is remarkably laid-back and mellow. Maybe the heat of the chili and the tingling of the Sichuan pepper that tickles the taste buds also balances a person out. On a weekend visit to the city with my husband and a friend, I was determined to experience Chengdu in all its fabulousness.
Of course, I began with the food. I have read Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir of her time in Chengdu and China, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China, and so was looking forward to exploring the many flavors of Sichuan cuisine even if I didn’t know enough Chinese to take cooking lessons like she did.
My first lunch was a large spread with new friends from Sichuan University at a campus restaurant. Bean thread noodles were lightly dressed in a sauce with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, perfectly balanced between the ma (numbing) and the la (hot), which definitely set my taste buds dancing. Other local dishes included a delicate pork spare rib soup with slices of mustard greens and buckwheat kernels that helped tone down the heat in my mouth from tasting the noodles, black pepper pork that perfectly balanced the sour and salty with the pepper, and a dish of crispy lotus root sprinkled with slivers of hot pepper and crispy pork.
The next morning we went to see the world-famous star of the area, the giant panda. We didn’t get up before dawn to arrive at the nearby Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding for the 7:30 a.m. opening when the pandas are fed (and are most active), but we did get there well before lunch and beat the heavier afternoon crowds. A lot of modern interactive and informative exhibits gave us facts about pandas, conservation and research at the park. Landscaped to resemble the pandas’ natural environment of woods, rocks and bamboo forests, it covers nearly 100 hectares and since we didn’t buy tickets for the shuttles, we did a lot of walking to see the various panda outdoor enclosures.
We first saw the adult pandas. One large outdoor enclosure held six big pandas, half of which were napping on large wooden platforms. Next were lots of adolescents doing their “panda thing” of napping, scratching and eating bamboo. Our visit culminated with the panda nursery. We waited in line to see the fuzzy pandas, while stern guards kept the crowd moving with relative efficiency, allowing them time to exclaim over the adorable little babies and get some photos. I saw four adorable little fuzzballs through the window, two napping and two others playfully wrestling on a wooden ramp.
We ended our visit at the Panda Café to have a panda latte topped with a milk foam heart and stenciled cocoa panda served in, you guessed it, a mug decorated with pandas. Considering the chilly weather outside, the warmth was welcome. We left with our feeling of “warm fuzzies” after a surfeit of panda cuteness and a bag of panda souvenirs.
Near the panda park, we stopped in at what we call a “hole in the wall” in the United States, meaning an inexpensive restaurant with basic decor and delicious food, where we had several versions of spicy noodles, including my favorite dan dan noodles. The waitress (who was probably one of the owners) was delighted to find we loved the spicy dishes that were as wellbalanced and tasty as any I have ever had.
On our last day we hit another tiny sidewalk restaurant in a quiet neighborhood where the only sound was the slap of mahjong tiles on a small table near an alley. A group of elderly residents surrounding the table were focused on what looked like a very serious game between four players. Our restaurant was run by two generations of a family, and though the third generation was there, she was busy doing her elementary school homework.
Along with our selection of three spicy noodle dishes, the proprietress and her daughter recommended their local dumplings, and they quickly and expertly stuffed several dozen wrappers with fillings, folded them into wontons, cooked them in a delicate broth and served them with a side of chili sauce and black vinegar. We had pork and pickled cabbage fillings, the other pork and greens, both delicate and delicious.
My visit perfectly called to mind my favorite quote from Dunlop’s memoir: “Sichuanese food ( chuan cai) is the spice girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods.” I won’t forget the many moods of those tasty foods anytime soon.
A cup of panda coffee at Panda Café in Chengdu