In Sichuan, China's richest and most populous province, fertile fields and farmyards provide basic materials for the some of the best food in the People's Republic. It is difficult to find a bad meal in Sichuan, and a truly genuine Sichuan eating experience will be unlike anything you've ever tasted.
In Sichuan's largest metropolis, Chongqing, for instance, the most famous local dish is a highly spiced and aromatic version of the Mongolian hot pot. Eating Chongqing hot pot will forever dispel your notions of what constitutes good Chinese food.
Little Miss Hot Pot (Huoguo Guniang in Chinese), located in a Chongqing suburb, is known to all the taxi drivers in town as the purveyor of the best hot pot. At the restaurant, a well-aged wok set into the center of a low, white-tiled table is filled with a boiling, dark broth of meat stock and oils, foaming in the heat with eye-tingling spices and aromas.
A metal grid is placed into the wok and a ladleful of more spices and herbs -- minced garlic, ginger, chilis hot oils and Sichuan peppers -- is plopped into the center. As the vapors increase, plates arrive with fingerling fish, eels, cow tendons and tripe, pink pig's brain and rice noodles. Cooked one by one in the amber oils of the hot pot, these strange delicacies emerge infused with Sichuan flavors.
The hot pot is as much a physical experience as a culinary one. The spices tingle and gently warm the mouth, but leave your nose running, your eyes tearing and sweat pouring down your back.
An afternoon of wandering through Chongqing's peasant markets should prepare you for both the spices and the contents of the city's most popular dish. In the narrow, hilly back alleys of this industrial port on the Yangtze River, there is a mind-boggling and sometimes stomach-wrenching display of Sichuanese fertility: pigs' ears, flattened pigs' heads, pigs' brains in basins, eggs wrapped in mud, dried ducks, green eels writhing in enamel bowls, mountains of emerald vegetables and mound after mound of orange, red, brown and scarlet peppercorns.
Sichuan, in southwestern China, is surrounded by high mountains on four sides and is home to more than 100 million people. For 2,000 years an intricate system of irrigation based near the capital city of Chengdu has promoted an astounding fertility in the central Sichuan basin. The agricultural wealth of the province inspired some long-forgotten poet to call it tianfuzhiguo, or "Land of Heavenly Abundance."
This richness is impressively apparent as you travel through the countryside and visit the local markets. Freshness in vegetables and meats is essential to Chinese cuisine, and in Sichuan the fields seem to migrate immediately to the table. Driving along rural roads, you see peasants bent over with the weight of cabbage and greens, or pedaling a cart full of live chickens and fresh eggs, or leading a squawking parade of geese to market.
Beyond the absolute freshness of its ingredients, genuine Sichuan cooking requires certain products that are unique to the province. The Sichuanese can be, in fact, quite chauvinistic about this.
Listing indigenous Sichuan products like salt, peppercorns, vinegar, bean paste, bean curd and soy sauce, Wang Yiming, former director of the Sichuan Culinary Institute in the capital city of Chengdu, says, "Sichuan cooking is inseparable from these ingredients." If he is right, a culinary tour of Sichuan province may leave you forever jaded to the inauthentic attempts at imitation found in Sichuan restaurants on this side of the Pacific.
A key ingredient in Sichuan cooking, and one missing from most American-Sichuan dishes, is something the Chinese call ma. Derived from the aromatic Sichuan peppercorn, ma is the most piquant taste of the hot pot and, when used in combination with Sichuan hot peppers called la, is the characteristic flavoring of a great many genuine Sichuan dishes.
Untranslatable and nearly indescribable, ma and la produce a taste sensation that numbs your mouth and fills your nose -- the fire of hot chili peppers accompanied by an icy and aromatic tingle. It's a taste like none other -- impossible to duplicate without the magic ingredients from the surrounding countryside.
There are many ways for a visitor to sample this cuisine at both the peasant and the imperial levels. If you venture onto the streets of Chengdu and Chongqing, into the hot-pot venues and small restaurants populated by the garrulous and spice-loving Sichuanese, you will be treated to some of the province's extraordinary culinary delights. For the courageous nibbler, there are the endless varieties of xiaochi, or snack food, available from small stalls that fill the back alleys of markets and shopping streets with enticing aromas.
In Chongqing, a small alley called Jiangjiaxiang, located off Wusi (May Fourth) Road near the center of town, is home to a long row of street-side eateries. Steam rises off enormous woks that boil above coal-filled drums, while white-capped chefs ladle out hot noodles, boiled sesame balls, savory dumplings and street versions of hot pot.
In markets behind the massive Renmin (People's) Hotel in the western part of Chongqing, there are more snack stalls and fast-food places. Look for a big wok of white, creamy bean curd and sample a favorite local dish of bean curd and sesame/spice sauce called dohua, or bean flower. You may also find the infamous dofunao, an overwhelmingly spicy dish whose name means "bean-curd brain."
As Sichuan's ancient and venerable capital, Chengdu boasts numerous hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve snacks named after the famous local residents who invented them. Most celebrated of them all is mapodofu, chunks of fresh bean curd fried with minced pork, hot spices and garlic and sprinkled with ma. It's named after a pockmarked (ma in Chinese) old lady named Madame Chen who set up shop a century ago to cater to traders and peddlers passing through Chengdu. The Chen Mapo Dofu Restaurant in northern Chengdu is the classic spot to sample this dish, but most restaurants include it on their menus.
Another renowned Sichuan snack is called dandanmian,or "carrying-pole noodles," so named because their ancient inventor would dispense the spicy wheat noodles from buckets carried on a shoulder pole. Their modern form can be found all over the streets of Chengdu and Chongqing, where bowls of oils, sauteed meat and spices wait to be filled with a ladle of fresh noodles, which are then sucked noisily into your mouth.
For a more imperial experience, there are banquets, arranged by tourist officials or on your own, in the better hotels and restaurants in Chengdu and Chongqing. As we discovered in our gourmet gallivanting through the province, the famed spiciness of its cuisine is only part of the story. In fact, the more upscale and refined the banquet, the more chances you will have to savor the delicacy and nuance of the many different flavors featured in Sichuan cooking.
Sichuan chefs like to boast that the most important characteristic of their cuisine is not its spiciness but the sheer quantity of different flavors and cooking styles. Working from a basic palate of five flavors -- spicy, aromatic, sweet, salty and sour -- the Sichuan chef has developed a repertoire of 23 flavors and 30 cooking methods. In a Sichuan banquet, which may include up to two dozen dishes, the highly spiced dishes are served early in the meal to "open" the stomach, with the more delicately flavored dishes to follow.
The traditional beginning to a Sichuan banquet is a cold platter of sliced meats, eggs and vegetables, artfully laid out in an intricate design. This is usually followed by spicy dishes like gongbao or imperial chicken, tangy rabbit and mapo dofu, all featuring the famed ma. A truly high-class banquet will also offer sea cucumber. Western visitors traditionally reject the sea cucumber, but the adventurous will find the Sichuan version a convincing explanation of why the Chinese treasure these sea slugs.
Moving on to the more delicate spices, the next dishes in a classy banquet may feature a cooking style called yuxiang, or fish flavored, which is actually a superb combination of wine, sugar, vinegar and sesame, and goubaroupian, a sweet and tangy meat sauce poured over sizzling rice. Finally there are the mashes, called ni, usually a sweet combination of meats or fish with nuts and sugar.
The Chinese are well known for the virtues of patience, prudence and pragmatism. But above all else, they value hospitality. If you travel in Sichuan with a simple appreciation of their culture and of the pride they take in their native cuisine, you will be wondrously rewarded.
To truly compliment your Sichuan hosts, follow up a great banquet, or even one particularly memorable bite, by exclaiming, "How aheeeoh" -- in the local dialect, "Great food!"
Alisa Joyce is a producer for ABC News in Beijing. David Barba is a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, San Diego.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: In the 8th century, Tang dynasty poet Du Fu wrote that reaching Sichuan was as "hard as the road to heaven." In modern times, transportation has eased a bit and there are daily flights linking both Chengdu and Chongqing with Beijing,Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) via CAAC, China's domestic airline, for $80 to $120 one-way. Air China and Japan Air are currently quoting a round-trip fare of $1,644 between New York and Beijing and $1,533 between New York and Shanghai, with restrictions.
Two daily trains make the 11-hour journey between Chongqing and Chengdu; in "soft-class" sleeper or first-class compartments, the fare is about $35 one-way.
WHERE TO STAY: In Chongqing, the classic tourist establishment is the Renmin (People's) Hotel at 175 Renmin Rd. A massive structure built in 1953 as a Stalinist remake of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the hotel has recently remodeled rooms with doubles for about $35. The Yangtze Chongqing, built by Holiday Inn, opened in December 1988. Doubles run about $65.
In Chengdu, the Jinjiang Hotel at 180 S. Renmin Rd. is the main tourist hotel, with comfortable and modern rooms for about $42. The Minshan International, a new hotel, is across the street from the Jinjiang at 17 S. Renmin Rd. and promises new heights of luxury in Chengdu; doubles are about $50.
WHERE TO EAT: In Chongqing, Little Miss Hot Pot, or Huoguo Guniang, is located on the south bank of the Yangtze River, near the new Holiday Inn hotel. There is no set address, but all the drivers know where to find it. Other notable restaurants:
Yizhishi Restaurant, near the People's Liberation Monument. One of Chongqing's best restaurants, featuring camphor-tea smoked duck and various eel dishes.
Old Sichuan Restaurant, on Bayi Road in the Central District. Famous for its beef dishes, especially dengyin beef with paper-thin slices of beef fried in Sichuan spices.
Xiaodongtian Restaurant, southwest of the People's Liberation Monument near Jiaochangkou. A training ground for Sichuan chefs, serving hot pot and all varieties of Sichuan haute cuisine and snacks.
Chen Mapo Dofu Restaurant, 113 Xiyulong Jie, north of the city square.
Dandanmian Restaurant, 64 Dongfeng Rd., near the Cultural Palace.
Tianfujiujia (Heavenly Abundance Restaurant), 48 North Lane in the western part of the city. The training restaurant for Sichuan Culinary Institute chefs.
Haiweicanting (Seafood Restaurant), on Dongfeng Road near the Cultural Palace. Features some of the best Sichuan cooking in the province, and has also been a training restaurant for Culinary Institute chefs.
Nulicanting (Great Effort Restaurant), 1 Xiaonanjie, near the People's Park, is in a lovely old-style wooden building with carved windows. One of Chengdu's best-known restaurants.
Chengdu Restaurant, on Shengli Zhong Road. One of the classic establishments in the city. The atmosphere is raucous but the food wonderful. -- Alisa Joyce and David Barba