There's More to Sichuan Cuisine Than Hot Pot
All photos by author
This article originally appeared on VICE China.
I spent my first few days in Beijing roaming its narrow streets and alleys. I came across some old ladies sitting in shadows, Baisha brand cigarettes clenched between their lips. "Hey little guy, are you from Sichuan?" one of them asked. "There is a spicy hot pot restaurant out front!" Man, you really have to love how Beijingers don't treat people like outsiders. The next day I returned to check out the restaurant the woman told me about. As soon as I opened the door, the owner greeted me with excitement.
"You actually came!" she said "We heard you're from Sichuan. We made malatang (spicy hot pot) today!"
Hot pot? Please, not this again. As a Sichuan native, I honesty never cared about the region's reputation as having the best cuisine in all of China. To me, a meal at a five-star restaurant tastes the same as food prepared with gutter-quality cooking oil. But across China, you say you're from Sichuan and someone is bound to mention hot pot.
The weird thing is that back home, the popularity of hot pot is actually on the decline. Personally, I think its pretty over-rated. I mean isn't hot pot just chuan chuan xiang without the skewers? So you want to know which Sichuan dishes are actually worth a trip to Chengdu? Take it from a local, the following dishes are far better than even the best hot pot out there.
Maocai is also called an "individual hotpot." It's not the name of one ingredient, it's a way to describe a specific method of cooking. The shop's owner first heats clear bone stock before putting in the base, which can really be anything since Sichuan people cook differently depending on their own personal tastes and favorite spices. When the soup boils, all the meat and vegetables go into a bamboo basket that is about the size of four or five fists put together.
After that, the cook pours all the meat and mixed vegetables into the broth—which already has a fiery layer of chili oil floating on top. Wait a little while and it's ready to eat.
Eating maocai is simple, but choosing what goes inside is the difficult part. Most maocai joints will have about 20 plastic boxes arranged on a table near the shop's entrance. Each one contains a different type of meat or vegetable. The idea here is that this is an all-you-can-eat place, but you only get one small bowl. I've watched with deep admiration the guys who can balance a tower of meat and veggies in a four-centimeter-deep bowl. The real foodies have architectural skills and thick skin, because those towers of food aren't easy to build and the entire time the owner will be standing there with a judging look on their face.
I never really understood why these restaurants required customers to pull off such feats of culinary design just to get enough meat and veggies to make a complete meal. Are Sichuan's businessmen just greedy for profit or do they just enjoy being so calculating? I once asked a friend of mine who loves maocai why the bowls were so damn small. "Do you expect them to give you a basin," she asked. "One bowl only costs CNY 7 ($1 USD) and you are free to eat as much rice as you want."
It's funny. The Sichuan region is a pretty relaxing place to live. It's not too windy or too dry. It's the kind of place that inspires old proverbs like: “When you're young don't enter Sichuan. But when you're old, don't dare leave.” The basic idea here is that Sichuan people lack ambition and curiosity about the outside world, a belief that makes the region bad for young people who need to grow their minds, but great for the elderly who want to live the good life.
Maybe this easy life made us more chill, but it also made us petty. In Sichuan you have the time to think about the little things, including feeling bitter over why the maocai place won't buy bigger bowls.
STIR-FRIED PORK LIVER
The Sichuan way of preparing stir-fried pork liver is bit heavier on the sauce than most. Sichuan people love to eat delicate things, that why pork liver is so popular. But do you know the secret to getting the most-tender meat available? It's not about choosing the youngest pig in the winter, or the fattest one. It's all about precision and timing. Sichuan wisdom says that when you take the pork liver out of the wok, you can only walk nine steps to the dinner table. That's the time it takes for the liver to arrive at its most tender. If you take one more step, the liver will taste one minute older—and therefore less tender.
There's no science to this belief, but plenty of Sichuan cooks follow the advice regardless. Why? Because food is just that important here. When old knowledge tells you nine is the perfect number of steps, you don't doubt it. You walk nine steps.
No matter how tender a pig's liver is, it doesn't hold a candle to the mudfish. A friend of mine suddenly had an epiphany one day while we were drinking and looking out over the Sichuan basin. "Do you know what the most-unbelievable dish in Sichuan is? Fresh mudfish caught for salt sellers!"
This is why: the fishing season for the mudfish (ni qiu) is very short and there are only a few of them out there. But salt vendors typically get their workers to install a stove on their boats so they can get the freshest mudfish. Whenever they catch one, it's immediately cooked in a pan and then put into a box wrapped in layers of cotton. The workers waiting on shore then take the boxes of fish and carry them on a shoulder pole, passing the delicious fish from one person to the next in a human chain so that when it arrives at the boss' home it's still hot.
The salt industry is a strange one. All the successful salt vendors seem to have no interest in expanding to other businesses. Instead they spend their time living a life of leisure. They wake up at noon, eat some amazing mudfish, and play mahjong down by the river. But don't jump to conclusions here, these guys aren't wasting their lives on idleness. Instead they are the living embodiment of the saying, “Brew a pot of tea. Take a sip. Life is good." Basically, in the parlance of today's doom obsessed society, the world's about to end, so we might as well enjoy it now.
Sichuan is one of the most-visited places in China, which, for some, raises the question of why even bother to leave? When you live in a place the rest of the country wants to visit on holiday, what's the point of going out and seeing the places they were so eager to escape?
I've spent the past few years wandering around, visiting the chilly north and the wild southwest, even heading down as far as Vietnam. But when I told my friend I was heading out on another trip, he asked "Why go outside? ('Outside' here means anywhere outside Sichuan) Just stay here! We will start a rabbit farm, and build a brick house on the side. At noon, we'll play games, and in the afternoon we'll play mahjong. At night we'll roast two rabbits and drink two bottles of beer! How good of a life would that be?” Honestly, I didn't have an answer to the contrary.
BUT, COME ON, HOT POT IS STILL THE BEST, RIGHT?
OK, so I started all of this saying hot pot was over-rated, and I still think it is. But I also know you can't talk about Sichuan food without mentioning the cuisine's most-famous dish. Here's the thing, if you think all this stuff about living a chill, easy life means that Sichuan people are a bunch of sissies, then you've never had a real hot pot.
The real stuff is spicy, and I do mean spicy. Sure, you can always go to a restaurant and choose the clear soup or the half-and-half yuanyang hot pot but regardless of your choice, there's one thing you can't get away from: Sichuan food is all about the chili.
Our obsession with spicy food is one of the defining characteristics of the Sichuan region. But why would such a peaceful, chill place be so hungry for mouth-numbing chilis and peppercorns? What is it about Sichuan that inspires such contradictions?
Maybe it's not a contradiction at all. After all Sichuan people have a long history of making dramatic, bold sacrifices when push comes to shove. Huang Jiguang was from Sichuan. So were Qiu Shaoyun, and Jiang Zhuyun. Maybe our love of fiery food is a representation of the fire that burns deep inside us all. Or maybe, as someone once told me, we just love our comfortable lives so much that we feel compelled to defend them at all costs. So, like a bowl of hot pot, that calm surface can hide a deep sea of burning spiciness. Didn't expect to get so deep about a bowl of malatang did you?