Spice Girl of China

Beijing Review - - EXPAT’S EYE - By Pamela Tobey The au­thor is an Amer­i­can work­ing in Bei­jing Copy­edited by Sudeshna Sarkar Com­ments to dingy­[email protected]­view.com

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

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