When you hear of Sichuan (四川), your tongue should be quivering in fear. Why? Spicy.
When I was younger, I remember my mother took both my sister and me to a Sichuan restaurant in Flushing, NY, which is a large Chinese neighborhood in Queens, NY, as in the New York City. I don’t remember anything except that it happened. I’m pretty positive that I wasn’t able to eat anything because it was spicy. Not sure if these memories are accurate or created through hearing this incident being mentioned. From whatever reasons this memory came about, it still sends a chill down my spine. Ok, maybe not that dramatic. I admit, I’m not that great with spicy food. But my ex-boyfriend likes to pat himself on the back for getting me to eat more spicy food. For the record, he so did not do that.
Arriving in Chengdu, I expected to be bombarded with the spiciest food ever. Would tears be streaming down my cheeks? Would my throat be gasping for milk (F.Y.I. water makes spiciness feel worse)? Maybe I’ll breathe fire.
Obviously, the first meal we had in Chengdu, ordered by the tour guide, was made to be suitable for our Western taste buds.
At Sichuan Folk, or Ba Guo Bu Yi (巴国布衣), I was shocked there were French fries, or rather baked potato wedges doused in oil, but I accepted it and continued eating it with the sweet and sour fish, or tang cu yu (糖醋鱼), and Kung Pao chicken, or gong bao ji ding (宫保鸡丁), since I was starving after the plane ride. There were also these strange Rice Krispie-like objects that were doused in sauce with black fungus and meat, which was called guo ba rou pian (锅巴肉片).
The dishes tasted fine the first time around. But after eating them a couple of more times… I was tired. The repeat offenders were yu xiang rou si (鱼香肉丝), Kung Pao chicken, guo ba rou pian, and sweet and sour fish. They taste fine after the first two times, but it felt as if we were served them at every meal in different restaurants. When at Shangdong, we ate at the same restaurant for lunch and dinner but it felt like every meal was different and we would leave feeling very satisfied. At these meals, I would leave feeling hungry and craving for more. I know we were being served meals prepared on a tour group budget, but French fries? Come on!
The second time we went to Ba Guo Bu Yi for a meal, this time dinner, I could not take it anymore. Another round of French fries?! I complained to the tour guide that of all food to be served to us for an “authentic experience,” we were given French fries. Notice the word French in there? She said that Chinese people also eat this. Yes, I understand they do. But they don’t go out of their way to eat it. I didn’t even bother to take many pictures during that disappointing meal.
I came to Chengdu for authentic food, not food that Chinese people thought I should like. It was tugging at the same string of impatience I have when people assume that I only eat milk and cheeseburgers . I do like those two, but I don’t just eat them. I eat many Chinese dishes at home and in restaurants. I like other countries food. I’m open to trying new things. I’ve eaten chicken feet.
But after the entire group, which was made of mostly students who were not ethnically Chinese like myself, complained, the tour guide finally understood our desire to eat more authentic, or di dao (地道; a Chinese vocabulary thrown around in our Chinglish), food. She made a stronger statement at each restaurant we ate at and slowly, we were no longer fed French fries. We tried different dishes, and ones that made me fan my mouth at the spiciness. I’m sure people in Sichuan can eat even spicier food, but I was happy with what I got.
We also compromised to have a freedom to eat a dinner by ourselves without having to rely on the tour guide. With our money returned, which was 40 yuan per meal, I and two other friends went to eat hot pot. A friend of mine from Dartmouth, who is from this city, gave some recommendations, but we ended up eating at a hot pot restaurant near the hotel. Spicy but not too spicy.
From here, begins my series on my adventures in Chengdu, Sichuan, which includes both the food and places I’ve visited. I’ll be working on the posts on my computer and if the Internet is strong enough in Lhasa, Tibet, I might even be able to publish some there!