Several weeks ago I got a call from an old friend and blogger (Dave of GoBackpacking.com) informing me that one of his travel blogger peers from NYC was visiting Chengdu to write about Sichuan food. I figured it’d be a great opportunity to meet a friend of a friend and soak up some wisdom and impressions of Chengdu from a veteran writer and traveler, so we met up. I shared some of my favorite places in Chengdu with Matt and he shared his perception of Chengdu as a newcomer who’s not only spent a lot of time in China, but even spoke some Chinese. Here’s how it went:
1) You’ve traveled around China before, but what’s the most striking thing you noticed about Chengdu?
You mean besides the Boat Building? I think I just noticed how relaxed Chengdu was, especially compared with cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The rumor was that Chengdu people are happy to drink tea for three hours in the middle of the afternoon, and I found myself doing just that.
2) Did the food live up to or exceed your expectations? What are your favorite dishes?
The food in Chengdu was easily as good as everyone said it would be, but more important for me was to learn how people eat—how fiery dishes are accompanied by simple, almost bland, but delicious things like kai shui bai cai or a little bowl of mian shui. Some dishes, though, I already miss intensely: yu xiang pai gu mian from a place near my hotel, the bai rou at Orange nongjiale, a gan guo with duck tongue. Some I can try to replicate at home, others… I’ll just have to come back one day!
3) You wrote The Frugal Traveler column for years, published in the NY Times – how does Chengdu fit into that theme?
Well, I stopped writing Frugal Traveler in May. (It’s been taken over by the talented Seth Kugel.) But like the rest of China, Chengdu is, on a very basic level, affordable. You can have a great bowl of noodles for 4RMB, stay in a more-than-decent room for 100RMB, and take taxis whenever you like. I can hardly imagine how I might’ve spent more money than I did!
4) Anything you can’t stand, were baffled by or couldn’t wait to write about?
I went jogging as many mornings as possible, so I immediately noticed the air quality. Or really, the lack of air quality. And there is still that Chinese attitude that gets interpreted as rudeness by Westerners: the willingness to push and jostle, to stare at misfortune, to run you down in a truck without a second thought (or even a first thought). My solution, of course, is to jostle back, to gape indiscriminately, and to throw a few choice curses in Sichuan hua at misbehaving cars.
5) I understand that regional varieties of Chinese food are currently popular in NYC (Xianese and Sichuan among them) – how do these compare to the real thing in Mainland China?
A lot of the tastes are similar from NYC to China (we have just about every ingredient China does), but what’s different, and what makes NYC (and American) Chinese restaurants suffer by comparison, is that over here restaurants are pretty much required to serve everything. Whereas in China you’d have a shop that only does a couple kinds of noodles, or mala huoguo, or freshwater eel, in America the menu usually has to include all of the above, which means no one can specialize and perfect recipes. Also, in China I can go to a noodle shop, sit down, order a bowl, eat it and be gone in 10 minutes. In America, the service culture means it takes longer and costs more.
6) Any China author or bloggers that helped you or that you recommend?
Before coming to China, I read a couple of Peter Hessler’s books, River Town and Oracle Bones. He’s a fantastic writer, able to take a half-dozen disparate subjects and tie them all together. Oh, I also read Murong Xuecun’s “Leave Me Alone, Chengdu,” which was fabulously entertaining—a view of modern Chengdu I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
7) Are there any travel stories about China that you’d love to read?
I’d be very curious to read stories in English by Chinese writers traveling through China: what do they make of regional differences, of the way the country is changing (or not), of the enormous size and diversity of the place they call home. Know anyone like that?
You can keep up with what Matt is up to by checking out his “Getting Lost” series in the New York Times roughly every two months, and his stories for Saveur and Afar magazines appear intermittently. He also writes a biweekly column called “The Voyager” at GetCurrency.com and you can follow him on Twitter or visit his website, WorldMatt.org.