Wednesday 14 August 2019

Sichuan, China - Summer 2019

Schezwan Shredded Beef
Sunday, 9 June

Before coming to China, Schezwan (or Sichuan as I now know it) was the word that meant "spicy" on a Chinese Take-Away menu.  Though so much of the British Chinese menu is incredibly inaccurate to actual Chinese cuisine the association of the word Schezwan and chili could not be more accurate.  "Schezwan shredded beef" was a favourite of mine growing up but you would probably not be surprised to hear that I did not find a single shredded beef dish in my time here.  When I say that a typical dish in Sichuan would have around 30 chillies in it that is no exaggeration.  If anything it is an under estimation.  In fact, some dishes are nothing but chili (right - a bar snack of stuffed fried chillies).  I am in Chengdu on my own and I intend to push my bowels to the limits! 

My first activity surprisingly had nothing to do with chili and instead had me waking up at 6am (having only arrived at the hotel at 2am...) and taking a Didi straight to the Giant Panda Breeding Centre.  If you do not have Didi (the local equivalent to Uber) then you will have to get your hotel to sort you out with some transport.  The gates opened at 7:30 and I arrived at 7:00 to a horde of people already defying all basic queueing rules.  I bought my tickets using a self service machine using Alipay which, again, if you are coming from abroad you will have to find another way.  Most foreigners that haven't bought their tickets online will have to wait for the ticket office to open which annoyingly opens just as the gates open at 7:30.  I must point out that I am here during a Chinese public holiday which is generally very much not advised.  As the gates opened the 3 million Chinese tourists charged to the nearest Panda enclosure.  Following the advice of a colleague I spent the first 15 minutes marching to the very last panda enclosure in the park.  This gave me 30 peaceful minutes alone with pandas that were no more than 5 meters away.  It was awesome and I happily spent the entire time just staring at the pandas interacting with each other, eating bamboo and generally being lazy.  Lazy is the single word that describes Pandas best.  They reminded me of humans having a lazy morning in their pants after a heavy night drinking.

I left the Pandas at around lunch time which was the perfect time to head to Jinli Street, better known as "Snack Street" - My new favour street in China.  Not only does this street have a massive range of Chinese delicacies it is also stunningly beautiful.  It is filled with bright red lanterns, overhanging trees, old (looking) wooden buildings and the odd water feature here and there.  Although I was wary that I was booked onto an evening food tour I really could not help myself buying a new snack the second I finished my previous one.  I started quite heavy with a paper cup filled with a variety of skewers dipped in a deep red, numbing chili oil.  It is known as boboji(钵钵鸡) and is utterly addictive.  There have been reports of this kind of chili oil having opiates in them which definitely explains why you can't get enough of it's fiery goodness.  In total I ate 5 different snacks of which the most fascinating one had to be the rabbit heads.  Spicy rabbit's head is a very popular snack here so I had to give it a go.  Perched on a littler wooden bench by a stream I began my attempt at munching every tiny morsel on little Thumper's skull - without making a mess.  It really was not easy and after breaking poor Peter's jaw open and scraping the brain out with it's own bottom teeth I couldn't help but feel a little bit psycho.  With 30 minutes gone, hands covered in brain and beard drenched in chili oil it was time to move on to Roger... I knew I shouldn't have bought two.

From Snack Street I cycled, using a public bike, to the People's Park (人民公园 - ren min gong yuan).  Chengdu is filled with beautifully maintained parks and the People's Park is the largest one.  The Teahouse culture here is a revelation as I happily sat there reading a book and people watching for a good hour or so.  The Teahouse in the People's Park is over 100 years old and they serve a flask of hot water and a cup of whatever tea leaves you ask for.  I hadn't quite mastered the art of sipping the tea without getting a mouth full of leaves but sitting in the shade of a tree and overlooking a tranquil koi pond it really was the perfect spot to relax.  It was full of Chinese people sitting and chatting but with a gentle hum of a busy library; a million miles away from how it would be in Beijing.  Another popular thing to do here whilst sipping your tea is getting your ears cleaned which I was a little nervous about but thoroughly enjoyed it.  Followed by a mini massage I could have stayed there all day.  One cup of tea leaves can make up to 7 cups of tea and so I topped up my tea until I finished the flask of water - the only reason I left the tea house was because I needed to pee.  Also, I could not pass on the opportunity of feeding the Koi Carp using a baby bottle attached to the end of a stick.  The best 10rmb I ever spent!

Still quite a bit full from my 5 snacks earlier, it was time to head onto my food tour with Lost Plate.  I have used Lost Plate in Beijing and knew that I was in for a real treat.  Lost Plate specialise in visiting proper authentic local food stops using rickshaws as the mode of transport.  What makes it extra special here in ChengDu is that rickshaws have been banned in the city except for the very few disabled drivers in which the ban would have meant having an extremely low chance of being able to support their families.  Our guide was called Bo and he handed us a cold beer on arrival.  What better way to spend an evening?!

Our first stop was a famous street vendor who has been making this particular kind of pancake for decades.  The vending cart that he used to lug around and sell on the streets back when it was allowed now makes the counter at the front of his hole in the wall shop.  With a reminder from our guide that "don't feel like you have to finish it as we have 4 more meals to come" followed by "there are three very popular fillings, which one would you like?" I was put in a very difficult position.  I went for the spicy, sticky pork filling and devoured it in seconds.  It would have been rude of me to just stand and watch the others who chose to eat their's in a much more reserved fashion so I figured that I would ask for one more.  Noticing my keenness the guide brought me two more - one spicy green bean and one shredded potato with another reminder of "don't worry about eating them all it's just for you to try".  The spicy green beans were slightly pickled and crunchy and the shredded potato was savoury against the slightly sweet pancake.  I finished both.  "Oh and they do a slightly less traditional filling of peanut butter and chocolate if anyone wants to try?" Bo happily informed us.  No but I will have another sticky pork if you're buying another round!  I ate four pancakes and cemented a strong impression on the group.  Bo explained the concept of "Fly Restaurants" which tend to be family run restaurants in what look like family homes.  They are known as fly restaurants as these hard to find spots in residential blocks do not advertise their whereabouts, but simple word of mouth spreads so quickly people flock like flies to these hidden restaurants.  We queued outside one such restaurant that was famous for their Chao Shou (抄手) Dumplings and sat in what was definitely once a bedroom and sampled all five kinds of dumplings that they made.  We then exited through the living room window that had stairs on the other side onto the street.  My favourite stop was probably the noodle restaurant where I got to stuff my face with all the famous noodles of Sichuan.  Dan Dan Mian (担担面) is probably the most famous but Tian Shui Mian (甜水面) or "sweet water noodles" stole the show for me.  Don't get me wrong, every noodle dish we ate was utterly scrumptious and I would have licked every bowl clean had I not been in public, but the Tian Shui Mian was different in taste and texture with thick chewy noodles in a fiery but sweet sauce.

After yesterday's busy day on 4 hours sleep it was a joyous moment when I heard that if I wanted to visit the giant budha without 4 hours of queuing I'd better catch the 7am train to Leshan.  Factoring in getting to the station and buying a ticket in plenty of time meant a 5:30am wake up.  I almost considered just taking the 4 hour queue and having a lie in but deep down I  knew what a mistake that would be.  I got there early and still queued for a good 2 hours.  As I was leaving the park the mildly fiendish side of me cracked a smile at the queue that had grew at least 4 times the size.  You can see the Giant Buddha from the top of it's head without any queuing at all but the view from the bottom was completely worth the wait.  Maybe not the 5-6 hour queue midday but I certainly took my time at the bottom marvelling at the world's largest Buddha.  I didn't hang around for too long afterwards as there seems to be very little to do in Leshan outside of Giant Buddha based activities.  I could have taken a boat to get another perspective from the river but that was another queue I didn't fancy tackling.  Instead I managed to find the one remaining noodle dish on my list just outside the park before catching the train back to Chengdu.  These slippery noodles are made out of mung bean and drenched in the standard Sichuan spicy, nutty, garlicky and sour sauce.  Utterly impossible to eat without slurping which luckily in China, much like burping and farting, is not rude at all.

Back in Chengdu for my final evening I decided that I couldn't leave without eating a hotpot.  Hotpot really isn't something you do by yourself but in the end I decided that on a good day I can eat for 2 or 3 people so figured what the hell i'll treat myself!  Another bonus is that my spice tolerance has grown to "Te la - 特辣" which stands for especially spicy or the hottest they go which I probably couldn't go for if I was sharing the pot.  I absolutely love hotpot and everything that comes with it - it's a full on experience every time.  First you select your cold items that you want to put in you bubbling pot, then you mix up you sauce bowl from the massive selection of sauces, spices and garnishes.  Sesame paste is your standard but if you are doing it properly like a local "成都人" you need to empty a full can of sesame oil into your bowl too.  I took my time and endured an hour of sweating and, though I may not have looked like I was enjoying it, I really would do it all again.  Hotpot is the ultimate example of the Mala (麻辣) effect that will make a masochist out of anyone; it hurts so bad but for some reason you can't help yourself but wanting more.  It was the spiciest meal I have ever eaten and I left having eaten 3 peoples worth of food.  My stomach wasn't uncomfortable but I could definitely feel the warmth of a small internal fire brewing.  Did I spend a disastrous evening on the loo? No! Did it play havoc on my early morning flight? Surprisingly not.  In fact I had absolutely no ill feeling whatsoever.  Some of the best food I have eaten in China has been in the last two days.  Sichuan food is everywhere in Beijing and people will literally queue for hours to get their mala kick.  It's not for everyone though and if you don't like your spicy food then I really don't know what you would do for food here.  I however loved every last bit! :o)


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