This post is meant to accompany my First letter from China: Sichuan. Since digestive difficulties have prevented me from tasting Chengdu’s wonderful food on this Kerala to Shaolin trip, I will instead narrate a story from April 2012, when I visited for the first time with my wife Li Ling.
Barely 15 minutes after reaching Buddha Zen, our hotel, we are on our way out. Ling has gotten directions to a local restaurant and we are walking briskly, after pulling on a thin extra layer for the crisp Spring evening. Unfortunately, we cover only about 300 metres before I get distracted by skewers of raw meat lying next to a charcoal grill. Perhaps more importantly, there is a wide tray of chilli flakes sitting next to it.
A few minutes later, the eager, young Chinese BBQ master is brushing the chilli onto sizzling meat cubes, using a giant paint brush, the kind one uses to paint walls. The meat is good enough, but we are to have much better.
I am ecstatic, though, that my mouth is finally on fire. I had spent months dreaming of this moment—my first chilli high in Sichuan. It is, I imagine, much like one’s first scotch in Scotland; or joint in Jamaica.
When I find out that our mainland China trip will begin in Chengdu, I am overjoyed. Before this Kerala2Shaolin research trip, I had visited only a few mainland Chinese cities: Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. By some distance, Chengdu is my favourite.
Li Ling, my wife, and I had visited in April 2012. Ling, on her first ever visit to the land of her forefathers, was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, worried about a week of musky hotel rooms, smoky restaurants and squalid, squatting-only toilets.
Deciding on Chengdu back then was easy. Ling wanted to look at animals and I wanted to eat them. Few places attract animal lovers and carnivores so effortlessly: Chengdu is home to the world’s foremost Panda sanctuary; it is also one of Asia’s gastronomic capitals, the centre of Sichuan cuisine. After five days we were smitten, by the comical, goofy pandas, by the irresistible “mala” spice (ma: numbing; la: spicy) and, unexpectedly, by the charming, laid-back people of Sichuan, who seem less interested in China’s hot growth than China’s hot tea. (For a more detailed digression into mala and Sichuanese food, see Culinary post from China: Sichuan)