In Chengdu, China, Remaking Sichuan Food
IN a private room in a mysterious little restaurant in Chengdu, my fellow diners goaded me to eat the turtle. It was soft-shelled, they said — as if that made it more enticing. They laughed and joked in Chinese, which I do not speak. Eating turtle grows a man’s bank account, my translator said. I didn’t get the meaning at first. Then it sunk in.
I plucked bibs and bobs of turtle from between the top shell and underbelly. It was bitter, spicy in that classically Sichuanese way, and startlingly good. It was paired with a mouth-cooling chaser, a gazpacho of coconut milk and buoyant tapioca balls.
We were at Zi Fi, a restaurant in the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China. Chengdu is one of many Chinese cities little known by the West but exploding with activity nonetheless. And Zi Fi is one of many Chengdu restaurants that are daring in these heady times to experiment with one of China’s most beloved cuisines.
Kung pao chicken, eggplant in hot garlic sauce, shredded pork with chili and soy — Sichuanese food has conquered the world. For many, it has become synonymous with Chinese food itself. My parents ate Sichuanese food as children in Mumbai. I grew up on it in Ohio. My children will probably grow up on it as well.
During a recent trip to Chengdu, though, I found a traditional cuisine broader, stranger and tastier than its facsimiles around the world.
In Chengdu, a crop of restaurants is making the Sichuanese food scene new, one turtle at a time: reviving forgotten recipes, cooking old dishes with new health-conscious techniques, applying familiar spices and styles to new ingredients.
When a country changes things, the diaspora can be the last to know. But in the belly of Sichuan, a culinary revolution is gathering.
My translator, a lecturer at a local university, had merely asked the tycoon, for whom she had once translated, for restaurant recommendations. But in Chengdu, renowned for its hospitality, he took that as license to convene a dinner for us — and two of his friends — at Zi Fi.
And, indeed, Zi Fi is a restaurant designed to make the successful businessman feel at home. At restaurants like this — those favored by wealthy Sichuanese — you don’t order. You sit in a private room and food arrives, course after spicy course, until you are bloated and drained and swear that you will not dine on Chinese tomorrow. (Of course, you still do.)
First, though, you must reserve two days in advance. You then enter a nondescript building and find yourself in a darkened courtyard with no tables in sight. Dining takes place in private rooms, each with its own servers. A vague air of secrecy pervades the place, with all the action taking place behind closed doors.
The food came in Chengdu-banquet style: everything on a lazy susan, with small nibbles followed by a long arc of courses. We began with abalone cooked with slim mushrooms, then the turtle and its coconut antidote, followed by a delicious clear soup graced with an edible flower.
The heat of Sichuanese food is well known. But Sichuan’s is a peculiar spiciness, in part thanks to the native peppercorns, famous for their vaguely anesthetic power. Chengdu restaurants like Zi Fi play a game of scalding you with spice, then cooling you off, then scalding you again.
It can be turtle chased by coconut milk, or pork chased by green-bean juice, or — my favorite — Zi Fi’s magnificent venison. The dish pranced between tradition and modernity, pairing nontraditional venison with the more traditional accompaniments of peppercorns, chilies, scallions and mushrooms — and then serving the dish in a nest of very nontraditional cotton candy, bits of which you eat to cool things off.
The end of the meal caused some confusion. A sweet custard seemed to conclude the meal, but it was followed by a salty sea slug topped with green chilies. Finally, the actual meal-ender: a tender, subtle Chinese snow pear deep-fried in a beignet-like crust. Magic.
With the help of time and intoxicants, the businessman relaxed. Soon we were taking turns declaring what an honor this dinner was. We were transcending acquaintanceship to become part of one another’s guanxi — the wondrous Chinese phrase for one’s web of enduring relationships.
Zi Fi, 27 Kuanxiangzi; (86-28) 8663-3737; zificlub.com. A multicourse meal in a private dining room begins at 400 renminbi (about $61 at 6.52 renminbi to the dollar) per person, and can easily double or triple depending on how extensive you want the feast to be. Reservations must be made two days ahead.
Gingko Fusion Sichuan Cuisine
For those who are not seasoned Chinese businessmen, Gingko offers a more tourist-friendly version of nouveau Sichuanese. The restaurant, which abuts the Nanhe River, is fancy in the Chinese, and not the Western, way: the lights as bright as electrically possible; the dining space a vast, undivided hall; two servers standing at attention about 10 feet away at all times, seeming more like prison guards than waiters.
But the food was tasty and accessible, with no exotic organs offered. Kung pao chicken was spicy but not too, and sweeter than is usual. In another dish, deep-fried bits of dried beef were cooked, in a touch of fusion, with pine nuts. The best was a long piece of eggplant, structurally reminiscent of garlic bread: sliced but not detached from its base, with minced pork wedged into the top.
All in all, I was impressed. But my translator told me I liked it because it catered to my foreign palate. The sugary chicken, pine nuts, elegant eggplant — these were a watering down of Sichuanese food, she said, shameless pandering in a city where eating is not supposed to be easy. I was duly chastened.
Gingko Fusion Sichuan Cuisine, 12 Linjiang Middle Road; (86-28) 8555-5588. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 300 renminbi.
Dong Hu Shou Xi
Having digested the rebuke, I returned to the traditional. Dong Hu Shou Xi is set in an old, labyrinthine house, with the curved roof that Buddhists believe wards off evil spirits. It has tables downstairs and private rooms upstairs; we went for the one with ornate gold napkins and a matching tablecloth, with huge windows overlooking a pond.
The old Sichuanese standards were marvelous: steamed pork leg with bok choy; noodles, finger-thick, swimming in a broth made from the bones of pig, chicken and duck. The star, though, was a dish that every respectable Chengdu restaurant attempts: wood ear mushrooms, somehow rendered both soft and crispy, tossed with sesame oil, vinegar and fresh cilantro.
But even here we found fusion: a significant hunk of New Zealand beef, served in a skillet with onions and peppercorns. The meat was soft and mildly sweet, with the usual peppery tingle: Sichuanese steak au poivre.
Dong Hu Shou Xi, 8 Guoxin Road, East Five Section; (86-28) 8453-8888. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 300 renminbi.
The hardest thing about Sichuanese cooking, Ms. Dallas told me, is timing. The dishes come together in a blur, with the intense heat of tall flames and short bursts of activity. She often realizes a minute into stir-frying a dish that she has overcooked it by 30 seconds. “It’s hard for someone who’s used to making béchamel sauce,” she said.
So it was no surprise when food arrived moments after we sat down at Yang Yang. Ms. Dallas had ordered just moments earlier what quickly revealed itself to be the best Chinese meal of my life.
Sweet-and-sour pork, bathed in egg batter and cooked with scallions and sugar, was the perfect equilibrium of the two flavors. Tender beef slices came in their own Jacuzzi of chili oil, having been boiled, stir-fried, then soaked in the oil — all within minutes.
But Yang Yang’s greatest victory came in the seemingly pedestrian form of potatoes and eggplant. The former arrived as a shredded heap, cut like hash browns and cooked like French fries. And the latter — well, it was the filet mignon of eggplant: thin slices deep-fried and seasoned with fermented bean paste and many cloves’ worth of garlic. The result was buttery, sweet and savory and gently numbing. It was Sichuanese eating at its finest — and one of the many little-known secrets of a very well-known cuisine.
Yang Yang, 32 Jin Yuan Xiang, Wu Hou Qu; (86-28) 8523-1394. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 150 renminbi.