I was sitting in the Hemp House a couple years ago drinking beers with my old college buddy Skip (who teaches English here in Chengdu) and Guoguo (the owner of the Hemp House) when local rocker and all around fun guy to be around Ran Wei showed up. He told us that Anton the Russian was coming back from Cyprus for a visit. I was pretty surprised to hear that, seeing as he had a steady job out there and I remember him telling me about his three week vacations.
I figured if a man was in Cyprus and had three weeks off, he might visit Venice or Barcelona or the Nile or family even. But Chengdu? When Anton showed up I mentioned this to him and this is how it went:
“Wow Anton, you really miss us here dontcha?”
He scoffed and replied,
“I don’t miss you, fool. I came here to eat. I have two weeks to eat and then I fly back to Russia to visit family. YO! Guo Guo! Let’s go to that beef hot pot restaurant down the street …”
That stuck with me, but I never really understood it until I spent some time in Shanghai. People just don’t eat right out in Shanghai. The Chinese restaurants I went to didn’t know how to slice their veggies properly, the sauces didn’t flow together and wherever I went, the noodles tasted like cardboard.
So I had to book a ticket on the new bullet train back to Chengdu and get a proper meal under my belt. My main task was to reunite with the dishes that I took for granted during the 8+ years that I called Chengdu my base. All sorts of Sichuan noodles, especially Yibin Ran Mian; Hong You Dumplings; Sichuan Style Sausage; Yu’er Ji and other Mala Hot Pot favorites likes Tang Shui Frog and Shui Zhu Beef … man the list goes on and on and includes such stand-bys as Yu Xiang Eggplant, Gong Bao Chicken and Mapo Tofu.
Chuan Cai Taking over the World
The Wall Street Journal came through Chengdu and tried to figure out why Sichuan Cuisine is so special. They went to the Culinary Institute, stopped by Wenshu Monastery, had hot pot, interviewed Fuchsia …
But they mentioned something in particular that captured my attention:
“… The Sichuan Institute sends about 150 students a year to work in the U.S., Europe, Singapore, the Middle East and elsewhere, part of what Chef Zhou tells me is a mutually beneficial cultural exchange. The students pay 30,000 yuan ($4,550) for the opportunity (which the college says they’ll make back in six months) and work in both Chinese and Western restaurants. Many of the students go on to open Sichuan restaurants abroad, while others bring back techniques and ingredients that are introduced into local dishes.”
I subscribe to Google Alerts for “Chengdu” and “Sichuan” and there is a blurb about a Sichuan restaurant killing it somewhere in the US almost every day. It’s anecdotal, about as solid as the quote above in terms of determining how widespread Sichuan Cuisine is really — and I mean the real deal not the knock-off Cantonese/Fujian Style Sichuan cuisine that is the norm in the West– but you know it’s happening:
Sichuanese are starting to make their way out into the world and when they get there, they take one look at the imposter “Szechuan” cuisine served up buffet style for $6 a head, and they’re like:
“Oh hell no.”
So they do what comes natural and open up a restaurant.
A case in point is the Lucky Strike in Portland. They opened up there just before I left the city to return to Chengdu. A young couple from Chengdu, real open minded, the types of people you might find at the Hemp House chilling with Anton and Guo Guo. They opened up, served the real deal Sichuan Style stuff and now their business is booming.
And most importantly, the Lucky Strike is a community joint. That’s how it is in Sichuan. Buffet style Chinese spots never knew that.
It’s all about the Love
People have been saying for years that “No one can handle the Sichuan Spice.” That’s baloney. It’s not even the spice that makes the cuisine so special, its the poppy shells.
And the Love.
Sichuan People Love Their Food. it’s just that simple.
They care about how the eggplant and the garlic and the Fish Flavor Sauce melt together. They care about presentation. They chop their veggies properly, uniformly — not random hacking. They take the time to mix and match flavors and ingredients because cooking is Alchemy. Alchemists are like Warlocks, which means it’s all mystic and magic. So without a food-loving Soul and some alchemy, your food will be tasteless, uninspiring and ultimately a destructive force of Evil in the world.
If you think that I’m going overboard, then book a ticket out to Sichuan.
You’ll be a slave forever, just like me.
Sichuan Cuisine Inspires Poetry
Sometimes, when I am leaning on my fist in Shanghai and staring out of the window thinking about a plate of Kou Shui Chicken and salivating, little snatches of song come to my mind. I usually just hum them wistfully to myself, but this last time, I wrote them down for you to enjoy:
Chuan Cai Poem
You are my Number One Lady
Didn’t mean to leave you
Didn’t know how much you meant to me
Shanghai kitchens all got a vasectomy
No love in their food, no spice in the sauce
At night I can’t sleep
I toss and turn
Visions of undercooked noodles
And dumplings being burned
Girl I am bookin a ticket right now
Back to the Du
Back to You
Sichuan Food has a Soundtrack
I’m not the only one. The Ya Jian Bang (???) was a local Chengdu band that sang exclusively about living in Chengdu. In this video below, they sing about all the little places around Chengdu that serve up cheap local dishes.
The text and words are all in Sichuan Dialect — if you want a translation you can do one of two things,
- Demand one in the comments section below
- Consult the Sichuanese near you
I’m too busy slurping to translate …