Sichuan peppercorns, chili flake and pimentos can be found in abundance throughout China, but the South-Western regions in particular really amp up the heat factor. Before I set out for a 5 1/2 week jaunt through this massive country, I made a very loose travel plan. I would head North and West from Hong Kong and focus on eating 3-10+ times per day. I wanted to experience Chinese cuisine (alot of it); in particular, the hot kind that numbs the face. I’ve always been a big fan of foods that pique, and China delivers. The culture, religion, way of life and history are also incredibly fascinating, so I figured I would experience a bit of all these aspects as I hunted along for some fiery foods.
Right after I crossed the border from Hong Kong into mainland China, I feasted on half a sheep with some friends of friends. Over a platter of roasted mutton, I had told them my plan of heading directly to the Sichuan province after our meal. They all demanded to know how I could pass on seeing the Great Wall while I was in China. In my mind, the Great Wall would be there for years to come and I could always see it on my next trip. But they made a hard case and I ended up heading East instead of West. I skipped through the cities along the Eastern coast, trying every food I could find along the way. In Shanghai I ate delicious vegetarian (mock Peking duck- shockingly delicious) and oodles of noodles. In Bejiing I tried the real Peking version at a renowned restaurant that serves hundreds, if not thousands, of succulently fruitwood-roasted ducks a day. I may or may not have ordered a serving meant for two people and polished it off myself! Yes, Peking duck is that delicious that you don’t really care that you’re downing thousands of calories in duck fat in one sitting. My face was aglow not only from the grin I had plastered on my face after I munched duck pancake dipped in plum sauce after consecutive duck pancake dipped in plum sauce, but from the slick grease that left a shimmery halo of fat around my lips. Could there be anything more perfect in China? I felt like Homer Simpson after he’s eaten a box of jelly glazed donuts. Oh delicious attractiveness!
And then I went to the Great Wall and thought “yeah, I can get down with this country.” I was glad I had made the few thousand mile detour.
My next favorite eating location was Xi’an. This city is a pit stop for tourists. It’s huge and under construction and has only a handful of non-historical things to see. Most people go to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I too went to see the soldiers, but after an hour or so in the fabricated Disneyland that surrounds these beautiful, ancient relics, I was back to the city center wandering around the Muslim quarter. Now here was something fascinating! A Chinese Muslim community. Imagine the food: lamb skewers heavily seasoned with paprika and garlic roasting over open fires, cauldrons containing mutton simmering away in alleys, rich soups with heavy broths melding together noodle, meat and herbs, and sweet cakes and dried fruit stands posted up outside of ramshackle restaurants. The streets were packed with locals and tourists, food was everywhere, and scents leapt off every vendor’s cart: smoke from grills being fanned mixed with the perfume of walnut stuffed persimmons being warmed in oil. The quarter was abuzz with fragrances and sounds and everything revolved around eating. I fell in love with the city the moment I set foot on the old streets. I sampled desserts and meats, yogurts and soups. Everything was definitively Muslim in appearance (the seasonings, the meats, the skull caps…), yet the Chinese aspects (overcrowded streets, chili, and noodles) intermingled perfectly with the latter and created a flavorful and memorable trip to Xi’an.
I finally made my way to my original destination: Sichuan. I should have spent more time there… I knew I was going to fall for this part of China. My very first day began the heated love affair. I threw my backpack in the hostel room–I didn’t waste any time unpacking or even refreshing. I set out onto the streets and began my search. I walked towards and old monastery that was down a cobbled street and spotted two restaurants. One was made of dark wood and intricately detailed with gold leaf designs. The one on the opposite corner was plain, had bikes piled up in the front and there were a mess of people inside. I joined the hot mess. I had a bit of trouble ordering but eventually a woman that spoke a bit of English came to my rescue. All throughout Sichuan I came across the problem of trying to order things spicy but would end up with not spicy food. I guess the moment the word “la” (meaning hot or spicy) came out of my mouth, everyone assumed I didn’t want it. No matter how many thumbs up, head nods, or yes+”la“…I inevitable got unspiced food. The woman started to order ‘no spice’ for me, but after much convincing, and her still looking incredibly skeptical, she ordered “mala” mien for me (the Sichuan specialty of numb heat).
We sat down and tucked into our bowls of noodles (I happened to order 2 different kinds!). She told me that when she was little and going to school in the neighborhood, she used to have to walk past this popular noodle spot and only wish to eat a bowl of her favorite noodles. But she was too poor and all she could do was whiff at the restaurant’s offerings. Now she takes her son to her favorite noodle joint in all of Chengdu, and I happened to stumble into that very one. She ordered me her favorite–a chewy white noodle laden in chili and oil–and I ordered a bright yellow noodle that had the consistency almost of jell-o. She picked me the winner. We sat with our heads over our bowls, slurping the noodles and whipping the oil up onto our chins. It was a pretty good first experience of Sichuan food.
From there on out, I ate hot pot, soups, noodles, veggies and tofu all slathered in “mala” chili. I have to admit that I thought the heat would be hotter in Sichuan. There are parts of Hunan where the food is supposedly a hotter heat, but I didn’t have time to visit those regions. You have to leave yourself reasons to go back, right? I ended up having a woman write down on a piece of paper the phrase in Chinese that “I like it very spicy please,” so there would be no confusion at other restaurants. Yet I would still receive bowls of soup sans chili. I think that the Chinese just assume that a Western girl doesn’t want to burn her mouth. How wrong they were. I learned quickly that I could go into the kitchens with my bowl of unseasoned whatever and point out the ingredients that were missing from the dish. I think they got a kick out of me asking for chili, and I ended up with a tastier version of whatever it was I had been served.
China was a bit difficult to travel around because of the language barrier, but it also made it exciting. It was like playing a game half the time, trying to understand each other through huge hand movements, over exaggerated facial expressions and often times a few sounds might come into play to get a point across (think asking for the train station). By traveling through seeking out local foods and ingredients, I got to really see what’s going on at the local level, as opposed to only visiting the Great Wall or the Terra Cotta soldiers. I enjoyed perusing the markets looking for new vegetables, sipping the local teas on the trains with the old men and women, and sitting in the parks watching the aerobic dance classes jump around to the music “Barbie Girl.” China was not only difficult, but exciting, crowded, crazy and spicy… and I can harldy wait to go back and eat in the gazillion towns and cities that I missed on this short first foray into the Orient.