Dashed on the Hot Rocks of the Sichuan Siren

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — Alas, I have been forever ruined for Chinese food in the United States. It will never be the same; you can’t go home again.

I am doomed.

Like the mythical Argonauts I have heard the culinary Siren’s song that is Sichuan cooking, but unlike them I have no Orpheus to provide even better tasting food, and no Odysseus to plug my nose to keep it from smelling its intoxicating, peppery aroma or my mouth to keep it from tasting its fiery, eye-watering, forehead sweating pleasures.

I’m sure that soon after I return to the United States, I will soon be reduced to a skulking, emaciated shell of a human being, something out of a Tolkienesque nightmare, wandering from bland U.S. restaurant to bland U.S. restaurant, each proclaiming to be more authentically Sichuan than the last. With each one my hopes will be raised, only to be dashed on the Sichuan Siren’s rocks as the first mundane morsel passes my thin, fish-like lips. I will throw my chopsticks down in disgust, the only heat to be felt in my yearning mouth will be that of bitter bile.

I will crawl out of each restaurant on all fours, the few strands of dank hair still clinging to my otherwise bald scalp hanging into my eyes, as I mutter and hiss in the back of my throat about “my Precious … We misses it, we does … we misses Chendgdu, gollum!”

I Am Ruined; This is My Fate

Melodramatic, yes? Man, I can pour on the BS when I get going, huh? A journalist is nothing if not a professional bull manure slinger.

I suppose my situation is not as bad as Tolkien’s Gollum. But last night I finally got to Chengdu, my third to last stop on the Silicon Road — no thanks to Air China or the security personnel at Xiamen’s airport — and today, I tasted culinary nirvana. My taste buds reached a transcendental state; my stomach is gurgling contentedly, even as I type this.

For today I had my first Sichuan cooking in Chengdu, a bustling city of 4.1 million souls — damn lucky ones — near the center of Sichuan province, which is itself the geographical heart of China.

The Chinese have a saying about Sichuan, or so my Lonely Planet guidebook tells me (I have yet to ask my new Chinese friends about this); translated into English it says “Never visit Sichuan when you are young.” The implication is that you won’t want to leave.

Now I know why.

For those among the culinary clueless — and how I pity you — Sichuan cuisine is famous around the globe, and in here in China it is famous in a country filled with famous cuisine, a country that takes its cuisine very serious. Remember, this is a culture with the polite, throw-way greeting consisting not of the West’s “hi-how-are-you?” but “have-you-eaten-today?”

Now I should explain that I’m a bit of a masochist. I love hot, spicy food. I’ve yet to encounter much that is too spicy or too hot for me. It’s not hot unless I can’t feel my lips, my forehead is sweating, my tongue is burning and I’m getting the hick-ups. If these criteria are met, it’s hot and I’m in food heaven. Give me more; thank you mistress may I have another?

My father started me on this trend back when I was 12, introducing me to the delights of jalapenos on pizza. It’s been a hot downhill ride for me ever since. Luckily, I seem to have an iron-clad digestive track; peppers never require me to down a Peptobismal chaser.

So naturally, I’ve been a big fan of Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants back in the U.S. since I was a teenager; Sichuan cooking involves a lot of spicy, peppery stuff. So while I’ve been dining all sorts of crazy — to a Westerner — stuff here in China, donkey, duck’s tongue, unidentified boiled vegetables and whatnot — I’ve been waiting to get here.

Unfortunately, we got in late last night, and there wasn’t much open, so we had to settle for one of the restaurants in our business-class hotel; I didn’t much mind though, figuring that, well, the hotel is in Chengdu, so the food must be pretty good by default. Of course the fates decided to screw with me; out of all the hotel food I’ve eaten this trip, this hotel has the most bland food. And I don’t know how you can make congee — the rice soup that is a breakfast staple for many in China — any blander than it already is, but this placed manages to do it.

Fortunately, while I was working away this morning, my faithful interpreter, Zhike (aka Tony) was out researching restaurants in Chengdu, as he was as excited as I was about the gastrointestinal delights to be discovered here.

So for lunch today, we went to a place called Bian Shi Cai Gen Xiang … and my lips tingled … my nose ran … in a word, exquisite. The mapo tofu was exquisite, the best I’ve ever had (it’s a staple for me at Chinese restaurants back home), and I discovered a new dish, well several actually, but the best by far was “yu xiang rou si.” According to Zhike this was just your standard, everyday Sichuan dish, for me, it was the food of the Gods.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaCome to think of it, I don’t know what was in it exactly, and I don’t really care — it could be ground up leprechaun toe nails for all I care — if I could boil yu xiang rou si in a spoon and shoot it into a vein I would. It was that good; I’m an addict looking for my next fix.

I can’t wait for the next four days in Chengdu. Or the next 40 years — I remain, dear Gentle Reader, yours in culinary addiction,

Jeff

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/27/2005 2:22:53 PM, Lloyd Jhanson said:

I haven’t been to Chengdu, I was in Shenzhen a couple of years ago, I did try some snake…It was very good…”tastes like chicken”…I know you can get snake here in the States but as you’ve said everything is different there. I don’t know what kind of snake it was, my hosts said it wasn’t cobra…not expensive enough…something about the Chinese equivalent of workman’s comp, I think… Anyway, if you get the chance, try the snake.

at 10/27/2005 4:01:18 PM, Ray said:

Loved your blog. I can relate to your article. My dear Chinese wife couldn’t imagine to live anywhere else in the US other than the San Francisco bay area, because “there is no other good Chinese food in the U.S. Maybe in LA, but nothing back east.” Happy eating.

at 11/3/2005 10:38:13 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

I’ve had rattle snake back in the states … chewy, like you would expect. And while the food here in Shenzhen is good, as it is all over China, I miss Chengdu already. Or at least my palate does … so much so that I had to go to a Sichuan restaurant here in Shenzhen. Fresh seafood is great and all, but mapo tofu and yu xiang rou si … my mouth mourns the fact that in a few days I’ll be back in the States.

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