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Melissa Block

Some Like It Hot

Chengdu

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.

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

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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.

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

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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 Melissa Block, NPR hide caption

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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.

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

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