Chengdu – Not Just for the Pandas

Following teaching in Shanghai, Joie and I made our way to Chengdu for five days. Chengdu is famous for it Giant Panda Research Base; but it is also the “capital” of Sichuan Cuisine and has been designated a UNESCO “City of Gastronomy.” It is famous for spicy pepper paste and mouth-numbing peppercorns in many of its traditional dishes:

Chilies and Peppercorns

Anyone who knows our food preferences will realize why we gravitated towards Chengdu.

Chengdu

Chengdu is a dynamic city of 14 million, give or take a few million depending on how one counts people who work in the city but do not hold residence cards. That size puts the city in 4th place, after Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing – but that order depends on whether one counts actual cities, provinces, or administrative regions. Hey, it’s populous! – and this picture from our hotel window just picks up a fraction of the developed area:

Hotel Window 3

The same scene at night:

Hotel Window 1

The Pandas

Let’s do the pandas first: To be sure, they are entertaining – especially the cubs, shown below clowning around after their breakfasts:

Cubs 2

Even the adults are amusing as they crunch on their bamboo shoots:

Mom & Cub 1 

The Wide and Narrow Alleys and Jin Li Street

Many of China’s cities feature “old town” areas where ancient buildings are restored and feature restaurants and shops, and Chengdu is no exception. Writing about these places in the Shenzhen Daily (2009-08-31), Wyatt Olson complained:

“First, the ancient buildings are virtually rebuilt, leaving little of what was authentically old. Then a phalanx of gaudy retail shops is opened in the spaces. The types of businesses are basically limited to these: cheap souvenirs, T-shirts and handbags, bulk tea, local “handmade” products made in a factory. Repeat every four storefronts.” 

He has a point. This is a view of Jin Li, a series of old buildings adjacent to the historic Wuhou Temple:

JinYi

And if the image above doesn’t make Olson’s point, there is this one from the Narrow Alley:

Starbucks

For a moment as we walked down the Narrow Alley, I thought we were on the Rambla in Barcelona where actors makes themselves appear as bronze statues and charm passers-by:

Clowns

But there is a distinctively Sichuan tradition that one can sample on the Wide and Narrow Alleys: ear-cleaning. This practice entails probing into the ear canal with various tools – pointers, scoops, bristled dusters, feathers and the like. According to the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop the effect is soothing. Right.

Ears Men

Even the relatively young are learning (and enjoying) this craft:

Ears Girl

Yu Bo’s Family Restaurant

Wyatt Olson’s complaint about the cheap commercialization of ancient neighborhoods is a fair one, but it overlooks one element of these simulacra – the food. In the Narrow Alley of Chengdu, this is an unfortunate omission. At 5:30, these red doors open into the hallway of a courtyard home whose levels and rooms collectively are Yu Bo’s Family Restaurant:

YuBoDoor

We arrived at 5:45 and were led to our dining room:

YuBoRoom

Arrayed on the glass were sixteen appetizers – the first of many (42?) courses. Each represented some constituent in traditional Sichuan cuisine, but expressed in its essence.

Yu Bo Appetizers

I leave it to Joie to post the details of the appetizers and the many dishes that follow – with three exceptions. The first is . . . OK, I cannot resist . . . a Sichuan “signature dish” – calligraphy pens whose tips are pastry and meant to be dipped in chili flavored “ink.” Thanks to the graciousness of my students in Shanghai, I had come to know this visual/edible phenomena before. At South Beauty restaurants it is called “The Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio.”

Signature Dish

Another example of bricolage is this Tea-Smoked Duck, assembled upon a scaffold:

Duck Dish at Yu Bo's

And, third, this small serving of something delicately crunchy – what it was I cannot recall. (Joie, seeing a draft of this post, reminds me that this is a mushroom from Yunnan.) What was striking was this: it smells like China.

Smells Like China

Comparisons between Yu Bo and El Bulli have been drawn here, here and here.  Not having been to El Bulli I can hardly comment. Jenny, author of the jingtheory food blog, reports the following: “He [Yu Bo] says of Ferran Adria’s 40+ course feast, ‘The flavours were a bit singular. In Spain, everything is just salty, or just sweet. There is no balance, no complexity. That is where Sichuan cooking shines.'”

Well, there you have it!

Hot Pot [the primary culinary export of Sichuan]

Hot Pot, we were told, was created as a way of making offal palatable by immersing it in fiery chiles and numbing peppercorns. The oil side (left) was loaded with both, helping me understand why the spice markets offer chiles and peppercorns in such large quantities. By “loaded” I mean 3-4 cups of chiles and 2 cups of the peppercorns. Here’s Joie about to dig in . . .

Hot Pot 1

This Sichuan dish is famous as well, seen petrified on display in the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine in Pixian:

KungPao

The Culinary Museum also has artifacts like this bronze kitchen range dating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD):

Stove

As well as this recreated kitchen:

Cooking!

Not to mention a quite passable contemporary kitchen were these lunch dishes were prepared:

Museum Lunch

Returning from Pixian to downtown Chengdu we stopped at an artisanal chile paste ‘factory.’  Here, the dried chiles are fermented in jugs with fava beans. We discovered that there are vintages of chile paste – aged one, two or three years. The people in the photo below are turning over the chile and bean mix as they do every day. This is the real stuff! – We brought home several boxes . . .

Chili Paste Fermenting

 The Market(s)

The chiles are ubiquitous. Here they are on display in the industrial spice market near the train station on the North side of the city:

Peppers in the Industrial Market

This is but one of many aisles of chiles, but then there are also peppercorns available in huge sacks:

Peppercorns

. . . and mushrooms . . .

Mushrooms

and dried seafood .  .  .

Squid

And, in the midst of the central business district, surrounded by tall buildings, is a wet market with fish:

Fish Held Up

Pork cuts on meat hooks:

Dried Meats

And a fish monger, enjoying a smoke while indifferent to a laowei passing by who snaps his picture:

Fish Monger

Matchmaking

In Chengdu’s Peoples’ Park (every Chinese city, including Berkeley, has a Peoples’ Park) parents gather, displaying posters that profile the attributes of their unmarried children. Other parents come by and read these profiles, evaluating the potential match with their own single daughters and sons. This is match.com, Chengdu style. The children themselves are loath to be seen in this market.

InPark Dating

If you read Mandarin, translate this one and I’ll post the details (see below):

InPark Dating 2

Thanks to Passenger, who translates:

“Male, 1.72 m tall, born on Dec, 1982. Graduated from a famous university with master’s degree. Received PhD degree from an US univercity. Now working in US. Born smart, good student and great personality, have many hobbies, high capability, born from a highly educated family. Have a car and an apartment.

Want: girl taller than 1.6 m, born at or after 1984. Must have master degree. Should be pretty, well-mannered, pure, aspirant. Already is or willing to go to US to study and work.

Parent’s number: …”

My Only Regret (!) – How Could We Have Missed. . . The Biggest Building in the World!

Upon returning to the U.S., I discovered that we missed the largest building in the world in Chengdu.

It’s a mall with a waterpark inside (linky).

Aw, jeez, maybe next time!

 

~ by raysparrowe on March 25, 2014.

3 Responses to “Chengdu – Not Just for the Pandas”

  1. Fabulous!!!

  2. It said:

    Male, 1.72 m tall, born on Dec, 1982. Graduated from a famous university with master’s degree. Received PhD degree from an US univercity. Now working in US. Born smart, good student and great personality, have many hobbies, high capability, born from a highly educated family. Have a car and an apartment.

    Want: girl taller than 1.6 m, born at or after 1984. Must have master degree. Should be pretty, well-mannered, pure, aspirant. Already is or willing to go to US to study and work.

    Parent’s number: …

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