ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
I'm Melissa Block.
And Robert, this is a mini send-off for you today.
BLOCK: You are heading off to Chengdu, China.
SIEGEL: That's right. I'll be leaving tomorrow, first for Beijing, and then flying from there to Chengdu, where we all will be at the end of May.
BLOCK: We'll be broadcasting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from Chengdu from May 19th to May 23rd. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in Western China.
SIEGEL: Yeah, this is a part of the world where phenomenal changes are taking place. Enormous economic growth, huge human migration within China, and of course as the Chinese look forward to the Olympics, we're experiencing a season of openness for world media that we're going to take advantage of.
BLOCK: That's right. And Chengdu's a great place to talk about all of those things. Robert, it is also a great place to eat. It is, as you said, the capital of Sichuan Province.
SIEGEL: I've heard of Sichuan food.
BLOCK: And the food is amazing and cheap. I should say, I was there in Chengdu last month doing some reporting, the first stories that we'll air later this month. And before I went, I talked to the cookbook writer Fuchsia Dunlop. She is an expert on Chinese food, was the first Westerner to study cooking at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, which is in Chengdu. This was back in the early 1990s. And Robert, she has written a food memoir of her years in China. The title is "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper." And listen to this, this is her description of Sichuan cuisine.
Ms. FUCHSIA DUNLOP (Cookbook Writer, "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China"): Sichuanese food, chan hai(ph), is the Spice Girl among Chinese cuisines - bold and lipsticked with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods (speaking foreign language) Each dish has its own style, they say, and a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.
Sichuanese cooking doesn't require extravagant raw ingredients like Cantonese or Shandong. Yes, you can fashion a Sichuanese banquet out of such things if you must, but you can equally work wonders with the most humble ingredients. Dazzle the taste buds with a simple repast of pork and aubergines. This is the greatness of Sichuanese cuisine, to make the ordinary extraordinary.
BLOCK: I'm getting hungry just listening to you, Fuchsia.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: You write about a lot of this extraordinary food that's quite ordinary, that you would find - back in the '90s in Chengdu you would find on the street, vendors just selling stuff right off of their shoulders.
Ms. DUNLOP: Yes, I used to hang around in very cheap and ordinary little restaurants and noodle shops. And the food that they served was so fresh and so delicious and so much more tasty than anything I'd had in Chinatown in London.
BLOCK: What was it about it that was so special?
Ms. DUNLOP: Well, I think it was just, you know, the extraordinary layering of flavors in Sichuanese cuisine, so you get tastes mixed up together - sweet and sour and spicy, and then of course the sort of tingling, lip-numbing taste of Sichuan pepper. So a meal can be a really electrifying experience with so many different tastes.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the Sichuan pepper. This is key to Sichuan cuisine, as I read your book, and it's not what we would think of as a chili pepper at all.
Ms. DUNLOP: No, it's completely unrelated to either pepper or the chili, and it's a really ancient Chinese spice. I mean, it is the original Chinese jao(ph) or pepper in ancient times used as an aromatic and to ward off insects. And it's not actually hot spicy, but it sort of makes your lips numb and tingly. And the word for this sensation in Chinese is ma, which means pins and needles and anesthesia, which gives you some idea of what it's like.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: And it's often though used in combination with dried red chilies that were imported, I guess, from Portugal. Is that right?
Ms. DUNLOP: Yeah, they started being seen in China in the late Ming Dynasty and spread towards in Sichuan, I think, you know, 200 or 300 years ago, so they haven't been around for that long. But now chilies and Sichuan pepper are really the hallmark spices of Sichuanese cuisine, that ma-la(ph) numbing and hot taste, which is kind of infamous in other parts of China.
BLOCK: You described going for a hot pot supper out in the countryside, I think, and there's a wok filled with dried red chilies and all sorts of other things bubbling around, and as you eat your dinner, you describe your body running with sweat, and you end up feeling ragged and molten.
Ms. DUNLOP: Yes, I mean a hot pot in the sort of hot pot headquarters in Chongching is the real numbing and hot experience, and you sit in front of a pot that seethes with chilies and Sichuan pepper and every morsel of food that you cook in the wok and then take out to eat is kind of covered in bits of chilly and Sichuan pepper. And it really, combined with the intense humidity of the Chongching summer climate, is just - I mean it's a real knockout. It's quite hilarious. It's so hot, you won't believe it.
BLOCK: And what do you do if by chance you don't have much taste for hot food? What if you're sort a hot food wimp?
Ms. DUNLOP: We'll Sichuanese food, although international stereotype is that it's all fiendishly hot and spicy, is actually incredibly diverse. So I think there's something for every different kind of taste.
BLOCK: Including mine?
Ms. DUNLOP: Including yours. I have no doubt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: You have this wonderful scene in the book where you describe a bean curd vendor who is selling fresh bean curd from his shoulder pole.
MS. DUNLOP: Yeah, I mean the bean curd vendor is selling flower bean curd, or silken bean curd, which is very soft, almost like creme caramel, and the Sichuanese ways to serve it with chilly and Sichuan paper and soy sauce and vinegar and a few crunchy vegetables and nuts. And the vendors have these red and black wooden barrels, which they carried around on either end of the shoulder pole and they just set them up here and there. And I used to spend a lot of time in tea houses reading and talking to people. And I would hear that the (foreign language spoken) calling out the name of this snack, and immediately sort of jump up and try and catch the vendor before he went. Yes, and this wonderful - the combination of the sort of very soft silkiness of the bean curd with the sort of crunchy fried soy beans and preserved mustard tube(ph) and all these spicy tastes was just lovely.
BLOCK: So as I head off to Chengdu, Fuchsia, steer me in a direction of something that I really must taste there if I want to get the full Chengdu experience, the full Sichuanese experience.
Ms. DUNLOP: Well, I would suggest that you go for Gong Bao chicken, the real authentic version of the dish known as the Kung Pao chicken in America, which has a sort of base flavor of scorched chilies and Sichuan paper and a little sweet and sour; and also twice cooked pork, which is one of the most beloved of all Sichuanese dishes, which is cooked pork, which is stir fried very simply with chilly and paste and sweet fermented sauce and green garlic, and it's simply and cheap, and it's just fantastically tasty.
BLOCK: So these are both things I would find in any Chinese restaurant here in Washington, D.C. You're saying that it's going to taste completely different in Chengdu.
Ms. DUNLOP: I think it will probably be a revelation to you.
BLOCK: Fuchsia Dunlop, thanks very much.
Ms. DUNLOP: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, and her book is "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China."
BLOCK: Robert, you hungry?
SIEGEL: I'm going to practicing saying Gong Bao chicken.
BLOCK: Speaking of Gong Bao chicken, Robert, I took her up on her challenge and the result of that will be in one of the stories airing later this month. I'll give you a hint. A white chef's hat is involved. And that will be during our week of broadcasts, May 19th to 23rd, from Chengdu, and there are recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop at npr.org.
SIEGEL: Next time I see you, we'll be in China.
BLOCK: See you in China.