Eating in Chengdu certainly has been an adventure and not quite what I expected from my previous experience of Sichuan cuisine. Some folks seemed to have a pretty good time, thinking most of the food was pretty good. Despite my culinarily adventurous streak, I lost 5lbs during my stay in China. I sampled most things, but the total caloric intake was low as I did not end up eating much at each meal.
My favorite foods were from street vendors who proffer an amazing diversity of items including lots of organ meats along with squid and vegetables skewered on bamboo sticks intended for dipping in hot oils. Though I am a huge fan of spicy foods, these spicy oils have an amazing anesthetic effect on your mouth as it goes numb with none of the fruity components founds in South or Central American cuisine. I’d stay away from the tripe as it appears to have sat around for some time before preparation (dark with bile). I’ve tried chitlins in the American South and menudo down in Mexico and if you are going to eat the intestines, you *have* to remove them rapidly and thoroughly clean them.
Also of note: The water in Chengdu is not culinary water. Even the stuff that comes out of the taps. I suggest only drinking bottled water and in fact, I even brushed my teeth with bottled water.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also for sale on the street including oranges, pumalos, corn, limes and more all offered with the aforementioned spicy chiles and spiced chile oils. The trick to eating safe however, is to purchase fruits and veggies that still have their skins on, then if possible, thoroughly wash them. Surprisingly, I saw very few sauces other than chile oils when we were there at meals ranging from street food to high-end dining experiences leading me to wonder: “Where was the soy sauce?”
The first full day we were in Chengdu, our hosts took us for a hotpot meal with heated oils and broths that you dip meats and vegetables into to cook. Originally, hotpot cuisine was a homestyle cuisine, but in recent years has become very popular in restaurants and cafes around Chengdu. Our meal was served with a fish, “beef” which I think was actually dog, mushrooms, vegetables, chicken feet and various processed meats and vegetables. I have to say that hotpot cuisine really did not do much for me as it was a bit too unctuous for my tastes. Cooking things in oil, followed by dipping in seasoned oils is just a bit too much.
We also had a meal at a bus-stop that was very traditional Chinese cuisine. Though duck heads and duck feet kept appearing and I found myself wishing for everything in-between the head and feet. The fried fish at the bus-stop was likely the tastiest item I had on the trip and the item I ate the most of.
In retrospect, an interesting aside of the trip in China was that I felt slightly tipsy most of the time. Because of my lack of total caloric intake, the usual beer consumed with meals tended to have a bit more of an effect on me and I spent most periods immediately after meals with a rather noticeable buzz.
After our presentations at the vision research center, Felix and I were treated by our host to a *genuine* Chinese, high-end meal at a famous Sichuan medicinal restaurant (Qin Shan Zhai Restaurant) with lots of “delicacies”. Snakes and cold noodles, dog tongue, duck tongue, insect fungi, rotten eggs, bull penis, dog penis, twisted tofu, sheep stomach and intestine and pigs feet, all in spicy Sichuan oil. Passing on the penis, my favorites were the twisted tofu, spicy beef and before seeing, or rather feeling the snakes in my mouth, I was rather enjoying the buckwheat noodles.
The most interesting item we were served at this meal however came from the inclusion of the genus Cordyceps. Specifically, Cordyceps sinensis or vegetable caterpillars were inserted into the skin of a duck at one of our meals. In Cordyceps, the host/pathogen relationship is usually species-specific and in this case from the genus Thitarodes from the family of moths Hepialidae. My Brother-In-Law, a mycologist, asked me how they tasted and if I felt revitalized after your meal as he informed me of a rich lore about athletic feats accomplished after eating Cordyceps as well as its history as an important component of traditional Chinese medicine. There really was no flavor per se. Rather is was a textural or experiential thing.
We did manage to find a Starbucks in Chengdu, but the service was poor, the coffee was not so good and their Internet access was heavily filtered through the Chinese government firewalls. The absolute best culinary experience in China however was in fact a beverage. And while this beverage was not gotten at the Starbucks, it was consumed at a local Internet bar in the Chengdu airport we were stuck in for some 10 hrs. We had ordered tea and chips to the tune of 144 Yuan, but when they brought out the tea, the leaves were *fresh*. The flavor was equisite, sweet and complex, like nothing I’ve ever experienced with tea. And most amazing was that for a period of almost 8 hours, they kept filling the glass back up with hot water and the tea really did retain its flavor and color. I wish we could get tea like this in the United States.