In this excerpt from his new book, 'Won Ton Lust,' John Krich discovers an edible legend in Chengdu, China.
“When you go to Beijing, you see how small a rank you hold. When you travel to Canton, you realize how little money you’ve got. But when you come to Chengdu, you find out how big is your appetite.”
With this contemporary proverb, a sharp-talking deputy from the Sichuan People’s Congress welcomes us to “The Storehouse of Heaven.” The capital of China’s “bread basket” province for a thousand years, Chengdu is less recognizable to Western ears than its home-cooked, chili-laced specialties like twice-cooked pork, tea-smoked duck, dan dan noodles, and ma po dofu. It’s said that travel, near or far, is always the shortcut to finding out who we are. But what sort of persons would fly to the western limits of Han China in a whining old Tupelov-154 just to sample a storied bowl of quivering bean curd, most likely too peppery for ingestion?
Apparently, we are Very Important People. Thanks to a well-placed friend in Beijing, we’re met and led through the airport mobs to a black Nissan limo with siren and bubble-top light. Our lead blocker, Mr. Xie, is no sluggish party hack. His chubby cheeks, button nose, and deep-set eyes instantly suggest an impish koala. His full head of coarse hair stands at attention in uncombed swirls, leaving the impression that he’s just got out of bed. Draped uneasily over a buttoned vest, Mr. Xie’s standard-issue black, double-breasted jacket serves as a kind of shawl for his broad shoulders.
As our limo weaves around horse carts and tractors through a rain-speckled night, our front-seat barker fairly blows a steady stream of chatter in Sichuan’s clipped and choppy dialect. This beer-bellied Buddhist’s implacable self-confidence has not been the slightest bit sapped by twenty-eight years as a People’s Liberation Army soldier stationed in Tibet border posts. By the time we’re nearing the center of this heartland hub of six million, we’ve heard all about Mr. Xie’s fluency in Russian and Tibetan, and extensive knowledge of Chinese medicine, including the various uses of pig bones.
“As a chef I’ve mastered at least sixty local dishes. I can teach you the best technique for deep meditation and people say I’m the best fortuneteller. Did you know that Chairman Mao himself used the I Ch’ing to find his safe hideout in Yenan?” As modern as he is traditional, Mr. Xie adds, “By the way, can I facilitate you in any form of economic investment?”
Mei and I can only glance at one another in amazement. What does this guy eat for breakfast? Who put the life force known as ch’i in his Cheerios? Or is this our first sampling of Sichuan’s self-proclaimed “red pepper spirit”? Instead of depositing us in the usual musty banquet hall, Mr. Xie has our limo pull up alongside a mangy row of white-tiled, open-air stalls. At a four-table affair bathed in butcher-shop pink fluorescence, Mr. Xie barks instructions to several kids in white caps nearly as charcoal-smudged as their cheeks. The woks fire up and by the time you can say cornstarch, we have Sichuan’s signature dishes laid before us: soft bean curd drowned in oil and a dollop of minced pork, hot-and-sour duck’s blood soup, hand-twisted noodles flecked with pickled cabbage, and last but hardly least, my obligatory fish-flavored shredded pork. This first rendition in the land of its birth, tangy and decidedly fishless, sears my tongue toward Nirvana. Mr. Xie beams with pride. After five minutes in Chengdu, I’m already “finding out the size of my appetite.”
Fancier isn’t necessarily better in the city with China’s liveliest street life. And this People’s Deputy isn’t in it for the luxury, either. Applying his formidable zealousness to the task of finding a bargain for two “humble writers,” Mr. Xie escorts us to a backpackers’ hotel where teenagers snooze with their heads on the reception counter. So much for free board in some cushy state dacha! This hotel lobby is unadorned but for the obligatory bank of clocks set to numerous time zones, all of them wrong. It’s a bad sign when the mattress in our room has no sheets and we’re relieved that none of the lights switch on. But Mr. Xie’s face is too mischievous to ever lose face. “Come on! My friend is the manager at a much better place!”
We hightail it to a high-rise VIP suite hung with gold lami curtains in what must be the Mildew Wing. The red carpet treatment would work better if the carpet weren’t covered with black blotches. We wonder if the heaps of tea leaves have been left in the toilet for us to read our touring futures. Then we’re refused the room for failing to show a marriage license, until Mei reaches for her U.S. passport — that worldwide license to get away with anything!
“When the sun comes out in Sichuan,” Mr. Xie warns us, “all the dogs begin to bark.” In the perpetually shrouded winter clamminess, Mei and I can hardly see the humongous statue of a saluting Chairman Mao, alabaster in his pea coat, rising above one end of the People’s Road. Like all Chinese cities, Chengdu’s population consists of millions more than you’d imagine and millions less than it seems when you’re trying to get anywhere. The usual waves of weary bicyclists churn past this month’s massive display of Party exhortation, “Fight Bravely Three Years to Make Chengdu Model Hygienic City!”
Fortunately, the ruled boulevards give way to an unhygienic chaos. Chengdu’s wooden two-story houses look almost Elizabethan with their boxy overhangs and variations of exposed beam and thatching. Sichuan’s famed bounty is showcased by a sidewalk abundance of straw baskets and bamboo bird cages, delicate stacks of budding eggplant, flowers and tobacco, fans and paper cuttings and bonsai trees. Workers hand grind sesame oils in giant woks; old men puff on long-stemmed bamboo pipes. Kung fu epics are projected in converted, flap-covered teahouses — the only cinemas in the world where the seats are made of bamboo.
China finally looks the way foreigners have always imagined it. Along every riverbank, temple courtyard or bamboo grove, there’s another teahouse. These are hardly sites for contemplation, but sprawling, noisy affairs where all age groups compete to stretch perpetually stained cups of soaked green tea leaves with composting piles of chewed pumpkin seeds laid beside cigarette butts. On every sidewalk, too, outdoor loungers stick skewers of frog thighs, pig livers and baby sparrows into a sludgy, week-old broth that’s divided into spicy and nonspicy sections like the symbol for yin and yang. I’ve been led to believe that the real popularity of the Sichuan hot pot is due to the opium that’s added to addict customers. But Mr. Xie will assure us that any opium in the broth is just the non-narcotic flower known as the keke. Yet another of my Oriental fantasies shot to hell.
Mei and I prefer to stop within the calm portals of an immense, luridly painted-up model of a Qing Dynasty mansion that’s topped with a huge neon sign saying, “Chengdu Snack City.” Around a reflecting pool lined with covered pavilions, a dozen or so restaurants have been grouped together in government-sponsored competition. We get dizzy choosing among the trays of saucer-sized platters loaded with variants of noodle dough soaked in degrees of chili oil. Lounging on silk pillows under eaves covered with fiery dragons, we plow through as many as twenty-four dishes. Slippery folds of wun tun with little or no stuffing look like albino goldfish slithering in a truly red sea. No asterisks or printed peppers warn us of impending spiciness. There are no menus here and every snack is hot stuff.
Now my tongue has a true out-of-mouth experience. Or am I in heaven? Chengdu’s much-extolled ma la numbness is provided by generous garnishes of ground fagara, a half-sweet and half-deadly peppercorn that was imported along the trade routes some six hundred years back. Judging by its ubiquitous presence atop every dish, it’s difficult to imagine what the Sichuan diet might have included before that. According to Chinese medicine, the inner yang fires stoked by the pepper counteracts outer humidity and dampness. And the relative prosperity of the peasants has always made this a province with fewer distinctions between down-home and palace foods. Every dish tastes tugged from the earth.
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“The four seas and the eight horizons all gathered into one cloud,” wrote the seventh-century poet Du Fu, whose recreated cottage is Chengdu’s leading tourist site. “You can’t tell an ox coming from a horse going, or the muddy Ching from clear Wei.”
Neither can Mei or I on our way to one of the shrines of Chinese cuisine. Suddenly, our taxi’s engine starts racing inexplicably. The driver pulls over with a shrug. “Overheated,” he tells Mei. Just coincidentally, there’s a motorcycle rickshaw waiting on the spot. As soon as we’ve transferred into the carriage, the taxi pulls away, good as new. Two fares to get us three blocks.
Open to a busy, tree-lined boulevard, Chengdu’s Chen Ma Po Dofu Restaurant is dimly lit at noon, with rotating ceiling fans, an old oak bar, a blackboard on which specialties have been scrawled in white chalk and a monstrous charnel house of a kitchen. The level of noise and excessive rudeness of the waitresses augur well. This is the direct descendant of the roadhouse run by Mrs. Chen, a widow with facial scars from a childhood disease who became a legend through her ma po dofu, now appearing on menus throughout the planet but rarely translated in its full meaning of “pockmarked grandma’s tofu.” Transcending a life of toil following the accidental death of her husband in 1901, she created her signature dish by combining the products of a neighboring lamb butcher and bean-curd maker. Was it back at San Francisco’s Hunan Restaurant that I first got hooked on this curious combination of crumbly custard topped with an Oriental ragu?
I can hardly wait to poke my sticks into the original. But impersonal state management and three moves from the original site have done little to maintain quality. The grand creation itself is served in a green plastic bowl that looks to have been recycled a million or two times. This ma po dofu is pretty much like other versions I’ll have in Sichuan: a buttery slab of fresh curd plopped deep into red chili oil, topped with a dollop of pork meat, and garnished with numbing peppercorns. A meal in itself, as they say, without any of the West’s frivolous scallions or peas.
I try to snap a quick photo back in the kitchen, but an aproned bouncer shoos me out, squawking as though I’m a corporate spy on a raid for Duncan Hines ma po mix. When Mei asks for some tea to rinse down the heat, the answer is Mei you. Pronounced like “mayo,” that phrase was the trademark response to all queries during the Mao era, meaning, “We don’t have any!” Mei is scandalized. Imagine a Chinese restaurant with no tea!
We get better service, and a heaped plate of smoked duck, from a former center of anti-Kuomintang activities that came to be called the Rat Hole Restaurant. And where will the ginger trail lead us tonight? Our stomachs, our eyes, our hearts demand an answer. Eating is more than necessity, it’s the essential adventure, the quest that must be fulfilled most often and therefore offers the surest route to surprise.
Mei keeps asking for a restaurant called Rong Le Yuan and ends up getting pointed down darkened streets reduced to wreckers’ rubble. With her accent, the locals think we’re looking for a playground. So we settle for a private room in a new hot pot palace where a typically scrambled English brochure “invites gentle persons of all ranks to descend.” It is here that I discover my new Sichuanese favorite, the killer shui zhu ro pian — hunks of steamed pork atop a crunchy variant of cabbage all drenched in chili oil.
Afterward, we poke our heads through hanging beads into a nightspot set glamorously beneath a circular highway rotary. The Casablanca Bar features a torch singer who mumbles her way through the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The waitresses ruin the effect of their leopard-skin miniskirts by standing at attention like choir girls with gloved hands clasped together. The real entertainment comes from a back booth where a drunk “unit leader” is haranguing and slapping around a blubbering underling. The other patrons try not to look, but we can’t help peeking at this spectacle of obeisance. The less dominant man presents first one side of his face to be chastised, then the other.
“Jesus said to turn the other cheek,” Mei whispers. “But here, the god is money.” When a Tibetan monk swathed in gold robes exits a nearby cabaret with a glazed grin, we’re enticed to pay an exorbitant fee for glasses of lemon tea while the “live fashion show” is replaced by a Madonna video. Apparently, Chengdu hasn’t quite got the hang of Western decadence.
For an Eastern touch, Mr. Xie transports us to the Da Fuo, or Big Buddha, carved out of the river cliff to a height of seventy-one meters. Sitting like some beatific lumberjack, hands firmly on its knees, this rather goofy, square-jawed Da Fuo appears to be waiting for the next helping of dofu. Recently, a peasant from Guangdong came up with the remarkable discovery that the entire bluff itself forms the supine body of an even more gigantic Buddha — with a pagoda erected right where a phallus should rise. Shouldn’t a Buddha be contentedly flaccid? This prophet who laughs at the world can be taken home in the form of a battery-powered, rubber doughboy. “Ha-ha-ha! Ho-ho-ho!” goes this zen Santa each time it rocks from side to side in our satchels. The thing sounds just like Mr. Xie.
Of course, the main reason we’ve come to the grimy river junction of Leshan is for a luncheon laid on by local officials. Our table has been loaded down with such perks as stir-fried venison, deep-fried swallows, and boiled, whole turtle. Every second bite, we have to stand for toasts with fiery rice wines. I have no idea what our provincial hosts could possibly want from us in return, though one bigwig with oddly hazel eyes pulls Mei aside for information about getting a cousin into an American dental college. This food is given for the sake of showing what one can give. Enforced by Confucian ritual or Communist pecking order, that’s the highest value in China.
“We have no mother and no father,” declares Mr. Xie as he eats and drinks everyone else under the table. “The People’s Congress is our family!”
Sounds like the Masons, but I doubt whether their meetings end in a private room made of sparkly foam walls, equipped with the latest karaoke system and projection TV. Mr. Xie is a born ham who joins Mei in a duet of rousing folk tunes from fifties’ propaganda films about Chinese army conquests. Tibet’s greatest hits. The accompanying “music videos” consist of ruddy-cheeked nomads strolling happily amidst herds of yak.
We don’t get in touch with the true spirit of Sichuan until the wife of a local carpet exporter suggests that we have supper with her father-in-law. “He’s something of a food expert,” she tells Mei, in what turns out to be quite an understatement. Whatever his profession, this occupant’s service to the nation has gained him the biggest apartment I’ve entered in all of China, complete with parquet floors and a solarium. Though his business card is too small to hold all his titles, Mr. Liao Bokang could be anyone’s archetypal bow-tie-wearing daddy. With his squared-off crew cut, bottle-thick glasses and salesman’s smile, this Chairman of the Sichuan Political Association reminds me of a Chinese Ozzie (as in Harriet). Like many Sichuanese, this former underground fighter and government official is a tiny bundle of energy. Unassuming and highly practical, he embodies the best characteristics found in Sichuan’s greatest political officer, China’s number one “capitalist roader.”
“In 1950, when Deng Xiaoping came to Chongqing and became the local secretary, he saw a bean flour noodle stand,” Liao Bokang says of his mentor. “Since he had left the region when he was ten, he missed the food from his childhood so much that he went to try some. When the chief of the Security Police tried to stop him for security reasons, Deng said that the safest thing is to go where no one expects you to go, to eat what no one expects you to eat.” The wit and wisdom of our supreme leader, according to Liao Bokang.
Once, Comrade Liao supervised the construction of the first bridge across the Yangtze River. Now he directs drivers, servants, and children with the unshakable confidence that is part of the product of China’s unquestioned respect for age. The only query that leaves him stumped is where to find “the one restaurant to present you with the best of Sichuan.” Like Mei and I, Comrade Liao is torn between authentic greasy spoons and elaborate, if less tasty, banquet houses. He settles somewhat grudgingly on Longchaoshou, generally acknowledged as Chengdu’s premier dining house. We’re whisked there in his black limo, then led through a ground-floor noodle house reeking of disinfectant. A table of honor is waiting for us in more exclusive surroundings, beside a traditional Chinese orchestra. As we’re seated, Liao Bokang declares, “Food is the point where the material meets the spiritual.”
Especially meals like this. Over the next two hours, we will sample eight cold dishes, five variants of dumplings in hot oil, chicken and pork over sizzling rice, chicken with peanuts and chilis, a whole fish, and of course, twice-cooked pork. In this version, the strips of meat are fatty and baconlike from the salty cure of a concentrated bean paste. Instead of cabbage, these are tossed in crunchy, hollow shoots of young garlic.
“There’s the dish that won a hundred million hearts!” Liao Bokang swears with his broad grin, speaking for the entire populace of Sichuan. “And it must be made only with bean paste from Pi Country!”
Mr. Liao tries to slow himself with the proverb, “When you eat, you shouldn’t speak.” But he clearly doesn’t believe it. “Still, words cannot convey the best dishes, the true feelings in life,” he waxes, turning coyly toward his demure and more wizened wife. “To say ‘I love you’ to someone, that’s too easy.”
Still waiting for those words after fifty years, the blushing Mrs. Liao tries to hush him up by joking, “Just tell them about the food!’
Pouring out his heart, the old man explains how everything essential to Chinese culture is connected to eating. After all, “Min yi shi wei tian.” Liao Bokang is the first of a hundred sages worldwide who cite this scripture from Confucius. Translations range anywhere from “People consider food uppermost” to “Daily fare is as high as heaven for the common man.”
“But don’t ask Confucius for the answers,” Liao Bokang cautions. “He died two thousand years ago!” Better that I should ask him about the origin of dian xin (dim sum in Cantonese). “These snacks are called ‘treasures to touch the heart’ because they derive from buns which were easy for soldiers to carry when they left home. During the wars of the Sung Dynasty, these foods were the only reminders of beloved places for men far from home.”
His home province has taken their food highly spiced ever since traders brought the chili from India, because “we’re in the center of China, and that means everything here has to be more intense.” To him, pepper represents the “characteristic of our present time. To do things faster. It’s like disco in music.” But he corrects the general belief that kung pao chicken comes from the Chinese words “to explode.” In fact, the dish was invented by one General Gung Bao, a renaissance man who was both gourmet and dam-builder, a master chef and the executioner of the Empress Ci Xi’s favorite eunuch. As for the reason the meat is so lean in the centerpiece of tea-smoked duck, “That’s because in Sichuan, to get our birds to market, we make them run a marathon.”
With emphatic hand gestures, and a big smile that undercuts all seriousness, Mr. Liao illustrates how our tea cups are narrowed at the base to ensure an even circulation of leaves. To him, “Chopsticks are a perfect example of physics, an application of the lever and the supporting point.”
In China, the ultimate reference point is always food. Even Liao Bokang’s description of the planet’s cultural divide is based on eating. “In the world, one third of the people use chopsticks, one third use forks, and one third use their hands.” So he’s able to flatter me with the assessment that, “This makes you a one-hundred-percent man.”
Liao Bokang is an inexhaustible fount of the Chinese beliefs that Mao’s fevered crusades had sought to banish. “Just keep a big heart and your health in balance,” he advises, dabbing his mouth with his napkin to suggest that the food orgy is nearly finished. “Try to look at everything that happens from the heights of history.”
Which is how this one-time revolutionary can finish out his life surrounded by a table’s worth of relatives who dote on his every pronouncement. But this contented cadre envies my work. Offering the best definition of travel, Liao Bokang confesses, “How I’d love to see what one hasn’t seen, to hear what one hasn’t heard, to taste what one hasn’t tasted.”
John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues. More John Krich.
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