Sichuan Style

DSC03646teatime.JPG

This blog entry about the events of Monday, August 30, 2004 was originally posted on September 05, 2004.

DAY 317:  Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province, the southwestern province before the Chinese occupied territory of Tibet.  Chengdu is a modern metropolis as most Chinese capitals are, known for its famous school of traditional medicine, its panda breeding center, and above all, its spicy cuisine.

It was raining when I arrived and regrouped with Dutchies Sybille and Meta who had hard sleepers in another car.  A hostel representative got us a taxi and drove us to a hutong (an old, traditional Chinese residential street) near the city center where the Dragon Town Hostel was located.  The receptionist put me in a dorm with the two Dutch girls, although the two of them pretty much did their own thing together.

The rains started clearing up so I decided to rent a bicycle to zip around town like the locals, but as soon as I was about to choose a bike, the rains started up again — and none of the rentals had an upright umbrella holder like the bicycles I had seen the locals have for when it rained.  Rather than pedal around myself to see some sights, I did the next best (or better) thing:  have someone else pedal me around in a covered bicycle rickshaw

By pointing to a map that had English and Mandarin printed on it, I told the rickshaw guy to take me to the Wuhou Temple, the site of the tomb of legendary king Liu Bei, who had won the war in Chengdu during the end of the Han dynasty and established the Shu dynasty.  Liu Bei’s story is immortalized in a famous Chinese novel known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which tells the story of Liu Bei’s plight to power against the odds with the help of his two warrior brothers-in-spirit, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.  A statue of Liu Bei was juxtaposed on the left and right with his inseparable warrior friends Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, and the dynamic trio was surrounded by other statues in the saga of The Three Kingdoms. 

Like the other “temples,” I had seen in China, the Wuhou Temple wasn’t a single building but an entire park with many courtyards, buildings, small bamboo forests and gardens — it had the most scenic of these gardens I had seen to date.  At the north end of the grounds was a teahouse — of course I didn’t know I had stumbled upon one at the time, when a Mandarin-speaking waitress urged me to have a seat.

Sure, I’m a big hungry, I thought, thinking it was a restaurant.

I sat down at a table and asked for a menu with the universal hand gesture:  making an imaginary rectangle in the air with my index fingers.  The young woman, in Chinese, suggested an item for me — the most expensive item on the menu of course at 30 yuan.  Pretending like I knew what she was saying, I perused the menu of Chinese characters as a phony connoisseur, acting like I didn’t prefer that item and wanted something more particular to my tastes.  I chose an item for 25 yuan by pointing to it and then sat patiently to see just exactly it was I ordered.

It wasn’t a dish of food like I had thought, but a specific kind of tea of course.  The waitress brought it out in its dry leaf form in a cup without any water and then stood there awaiting my command.

Uh, yeah, so is this like wine?  Am I supposed to smell it or feel its texture?  Two others gathered around to see if I approved.  I picked up one of the small dry leaves in the cup and was about to sniff it, but I was immediately retorted by stares that said, “Just what do you think you are doing?”  Uh, maybe it’s not like wine at all.

Luckily a guy sitting at another table who knew some English came to our aid.  “Twenty five yuan,” he told me.  The surrounding staff just wanted me to pay for it before pouring in the water.

The tea at the tea house was rather pricey — twenty-five for a cup as opposed to a normally-priced meal at five — because you pay for the ambience and the fact that as long as you stay, the tea is perpetual since they just keep on giving you more.  Although popular in other provinces in China, teahouses are particular famous in the Sichuan province since, according to Rough Guide, the Sichuanese are particularly chatty and talk over tea.  Teahouses are found in locations around the city where the Sichuanese gather to sit for hours over tea to gossip, read or play a game of cards or mahjong.  Some people spend all day sitting around and drinking in a teahouse (picture above) — until they have to stand up and walk over to the bathroom to pee of course. 


SICHUAN CUISINE HAS A DISTINCT STYLE that separates it from the other regions of China.  The Sichuanese have embraced the use of the regional Sichuan pepper, a red hot chili pepper used in almost all their food.  I think even baby food might have Sichuan peppers in it because the Sichuanese don’t even flinch when eating it at any age, whereas I needed to douse the fires in my mouth at almost every bite. 

According to The Rough Guide to China (I bought it from John and Adam after the acrobat show in Beijing), one of the dishes to sample in Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu is mapo dofu, a spicy tofu dish with Sichuan peppers and ground pork.  There is a debate (so the guide says) over who has the best mapo dofu in town, and arguably it is the secret recipe of Grandma Chen of the Chen Mapo Dofu restaurant, a few blocks north of the Mao statue in the city center, which was pretty much a construction zone. 

Finding the restaurant, even with a map, was hard because there was no big bright neon arrow pointing down to it with a bright neon sign saying, “EAT AT CHEN’S,” and there was no English or Pinyin either.  Rough Guide made it easier than Lonely Planet with easy-to-use charts in the pages of each city so that you could match the names of places with its English equivalent.  I matched the characters for Chen Mapo Dofu like a kindergartener and found it — a small restaurant in the middle of what seemed to be the moped dealer district.

An old woman who may or may not have been Grandma Chen had some waitresses bring me out a pair of chopsticks and a small package of tissues.  I waited and waited to be waited on, contemplating what kind of crazy sculpture I could make with two wooden sticks and some tissue paper — a stretcher for a G.I. Joe action figure perhaps? — until I realized I had to order at the desk.

“Uh, mapo dofu?” I asked the presumed Grandma Chen.

“[Something something],” she said in Chinese.

“Mapo dofu?”

“[Something something],” she said, this time waving her hand across as if to ask, “That’s all?”  I nodded yes.

In less than a minute I was staring at a big bowl of mapo dofu and a side of rice.  Unlike the spicy tofu dishes I’d had back home, this dish had a layer of Grandma Chen’s secret herbs and spices.  I definitely tasted garlic and ginger, but they were no match for the dominant Sichuan pepper, which was still bearable and let you taste the food — unlike some Texas chilis.  Don’t get me wrong, it was spicy and I soon discovered that the package of tissues wasn’t just to wipe my mouth of sauce, but to wipe the sweat off my forehead and nose at every bite.


THE REST OF THE DAY I wandered just around the modern city center of Chengdu — it was pretty much like any other modern Chinese city — and then went back to the hostel to work on my laptop to work the rest of the night.  It was a pretty bland end to a hot and spicy afternoon, but at least I didn’t have to keep on wiping the sweat off my face.






Next entry: Porn For Pandas

Previous entry: Big Wild Goose Chase




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Comments for “Sichuan Style”

  • I am so happy that all that hard sleeping didn’t kill your humor off!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  07:08 AM


  • Looks spicy.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  07:46 AM


  • GREETINGS FROM YANGSHUO, southern China’s backpacker haven surrounded by those crazy contorted limestone mountains that look like big camel humps.  Yes, I’m still days behind on The Blog, but Yangshuo is a nice place to chill out and catch up.  I aim to be all caught up before I leave for Hong Kong in the next few days.

    POSTCARD PEOPLE:  As far as my records show, the new mailing list consists of Arabela, TD0T, Sam, Stephanie, Rose, Nicole, Neven…  If I am missing anyone, speak up.  (Of course, the list is always open for new sponsors).

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  10:01 AM


  • NICOLE:  I don’t believe I have your postal addy…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  10:07 AM


  • I wish I was with you having fun on the camel humps. Boo hoo for me.  No fun being locked up in a classroom. Sigh::

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  12:49 PM


  • E:LISA:  You could always cut and join up here…Yangshou is awesome.  If not, why not ask your prof to hold classes outside?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/05  at  04:53 PM


  • Great composition to the entry’s main pic smile

    Posted by Liz  on  09/05  at  05:32 PM


  • finally read it…i’m hungry now…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/06  at  09:27 PM


  • i second what markyt said. *stomach grumbling*

    J2x, Shea and Ichtu are to meet for lunch…a first since you left erik. Maybe will go to china town and drink a cup of tea to your health?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/07  at  12:41 AM


  • LOVEPENNY:  A first?  It’s been over ten months so far!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/07  at  08:37 AM


  • Now I’m hungry too - 4 days after you posted this. Or 5, even. That sounds so yummy! At the Chinese restaurant I used to work in we called in Ma Po Tofu. smile
    The residential street could almost pass for most any side street in a 3rd world country. Interesting.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/10  at  10:42 PM


  • that food looked good. mm.

    Posted by Alyson  on  09/11  at  05:20 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Porn For Pandas

Previous entry:
Big Wild Goose Chase




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