Melissa Block

Some Like It Hot


Saturday, April 12, 2008, 1:13 am

In an earlier post, I described the quite extraordinary sensation of the Sichuan peppercorn and the numbing feeling known as "ma" that it produces — a sensation quite different from spicy heat. Afterward, a reader accused me of "sustain(ing) the impression that the local food is daintily spiced", and of "drastically misrepresent(ing) one of the most dramatically incendiary features of Sichuan culture."

Dear reader, let me prove you wrong.

cooked rabbit and tofu

Rabbit and vegetables, left, and pockmarked woman's tofu. Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block, NPR

Dinner on my first night in Chengdu included rabbit piled with puffy red lantern chilis, chopped chilis, and Sichuan pepper. On several occasions, I ate ma po tofu - or pockmarked woman's tofu - a signature incendiary dish of Sichuan.

vegetables and chicken

Organic rabbit, left, and chicken with green chilis and Sichuan pepper. Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block, NPR

Another meal featured a chicken dish with green and red chilis galore - along with green Sichuan peppercorns on the stem. When I visited an organic farm just outside of Chengdu, we were served a fantastic lunch of vegetables fresh from the garden along with farm-raised pork and fish, and a rabbit dish in a spicy sauce.

Chaoshou dumplings, left, and, er, nevermind

Chaoshou dumplings, left, and, er, nevermind Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block, NPR

I loved the look of chaoshou dumplings folded gently in neat rows. The name chaoshou means "folded hands". In his book "River Town", the New Yorker writer Peter Hessler says, "In most parts of Sichuan, you can walk into a restaurant and order chaoshou without making a sound. Cross your arms and they will understand exactly what you want." I haven't tried that, but I have tried the dumplings, and they're delicious . You can get these in
broth or in spicy sauce. I went for broth.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw mine here: no intestines for me.



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I love your Chengdu diary.

It brings back memories of what we call "small eats." Most of these "small eats" are spicy and tasty. Although I drifted away from them being here in the states, I miss them.

It was believed that spicy food is beneficia for your health, especially for people living in areas of high humidity like Chengdu. It's suppose to open up one's sweet gland. One may feel liberated after having spicy stuff.

Despite the fact that Chengdu cuisine is known for being spicy, most ordinary housholds serves little of those spicy dishes at the dinner table.

Sent by X Wang | 10:26 PM | 4-13-2008

Yummy....I'm so jealous of you! I have never been to Sichuan, even though I came from central China. The country is just so big. I can't wait to come back and visit all these amazing places.

Love your show and appreciate your efforts of traveling this far. May you have a good time and make some new friends there. Don't eat too much hot food though, you may build up some "fire" in your body (according to the yin-yang theory). But don't worry, even though it happens, you can drink some tea to help, and everyone should be help to on that. Just ask for "bai huo cha."

Sent by G. Zhang | 11:38 PM | 4-13-2008

My mouth is watering. I wanna go out to get some dim sum.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 12:35 AM | 4-14-2008

I have visited Chengdu twice in the last couple of years while working with the Chengdu Base for Giant Panda Breeding. Every day, promptly at noon, we'd suspend work and head down the hill to the Base cafeteria, where we'd be served the best Chinese food you've ever eaten in your life. Then we'd go back to work. We've worked in lots of zoos in the US where the lunch break consists of a hot dog and soggy fries. As my partner remarked after one more remarkable meal, "It kinda sets a new standard for zoo food, doncha think?"

Of course, because we were "honored foreign guests" each evening involved feasting (and accompanying obligatory semi-competitive drinking and toasting) and one night our hosts brought us to a remarkable establishment described only as "the mushroom restaurant." We ate dozens of dishes and each centered on mushrooms, in every conceivable form -- and some that wouldn't have seemed conceivable beforehand. Ask your local guides, I'm sure they'll know the place.

Sichuanese cuisine does involve plenty of heat, but it is far richer and more subtle than many folks think.

Sent by J. Tevere MacFadyen | 9:46 AM | 4-14-2008

I'm so glad you tried our Sichuan's signature dish: Ma po Tofu. But have you tried our popular dim sum? You should try Zhong Shuijiao, Long Chaoshou, Han Baozi. You can find them easily on Chunxi Road. And they are cheap. You can indulge on less than 100 RMB.

We love our teahouses in Chengdu. Ask for Jasmine tea which is very popular. At some teahouses you can even see Sichuan opera performed.

And you must try one of our Hot Pot restaurants. Hot Pot is enjoyed with everyone seated around a round table with a large pot in the center. Everyone takes their meal from it. You can find one on CaoShi Street.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 1:16 PM | 4-14-2008

The tofu dish happens to bear my nickname: MPDF. Spicy pepper is everywhere, of course. But talking about traditional Sichuan cuisine, only about 1/3 of the dishes are spicy.

Have you ever tried more traditional restaurants in Chengdu?

I mean the restaurants that have a history of more than 40-50 years? Such as the "Pan Sun Shi" restaurant just behind the Wangfujing Department Store? You'll find something quite different than the so called modern Sichuan Cuisine.

Sent by Liang Huang | 4:26 PM | 4-15-2008

Sichuan cuisine is indeed not all about heat or spicy. The essence of it is the taste and creativity. This takes time to discover and appreciate.

Sent by Ji (a Chengdu native) , Schaumburg, IL | 11:13 PM | 5-14-2008