I am getting around to this really late I know, but back in May, I visited Chengdu, China for the first time and it was amazing. Well, honestly, the city (China’s 4th biggest and the capital of the Sichuan province) looks like many other Chinese cities – lots of tall monotonous buildings, wide multi-lane streets overcrowded with cars and scooters and criss-crossed with decrepit overhead pedestrian crossings, lots of government and military buildings, and a smattering of visions of abject poverty and sublime wealth often side by side. That being said, Chengdu’s principal attraction is its amazing gastronomy. Elected Gastronomic Cultural Capital of the World by UNESCO in 2011, it is astounding in the variety and exotic flavours and I only barely scratched the surface of what is there. The star of the show is the Chengdu hot pot, featuring the sichuan pepper, known locally as ma-la as I actually have written about before. In that previous article, I had been told that spicy was “na” but perhaps there is a pronunciation thing happening because in Chengdu (and in my subsequent reading about Chengdu food) it was “la”. In any case, the traditional hot pot is EXTREMELY spicy. I eat VERY spicy food – texmex, chills, hot sauces, and have never been phased by Indian food (other than a crazy daal in Bristol that was 1% lentils and 99% chills) – but the hot pots I ate were each a one out a three on the local spicy scale and they were very, very spicy already. You are served on a circular table with a gas cooker in the middle where they place a huge metal bowl filled with oil (and if requested, a smaller bowl inside with little or no spice) and they light the gas and you are off. Hopefully, you have a Chinese host that selects all the meat and veggies for you that you will place in the oil and remove after a little while with your chopsticks. A few notes:
1/ they give you two smaller personal bowls. One is for moving the meat from the cooker to the bowl and then into your burning mouth. the other has a sort of oil in it to which you add fresh garlic and coriander – you can see that in the picture to the left. You mix this up and then dip your meat and veggies and it is amazing.
2/ some Chinese can be quite fastidious about manners and hygiene. Two quick rules of chopstick etiquette: never place the chopsticks directly on the table while not using them – ALWAY place them on a bowl or a plate. If possible, use a different pair of chopsticks for dipping into the common cooking pot than the ones you use to put the food in your mouth.
Typically, the Chinese do not drink anything while they eat. They, however, do make an exception for hot pot because, THAT SHIT BURNS MAN! The anaesthesia effect on your tongue of the ma combined with the super spiciness of the la is so unique that you really have to try it to understand. And in Chengdu, this is taken VERY seriously – there are two chains that I know of that make sichuan-style hot pots all over China: South Beauty and Hai Di Lao – both of these are BANNED from Chengdu as not being the REAL THING.
Besides hot pot, you can also eat lots of other fun things – it is truly an amazing place for cuisine! I did not get pictures of everything but to end the article, here is a quick gallery of some of the other delicacies (and things you may be surprised about but which were all delicious).