“So this is what kung pao chicken is supposed to taste like,” I said moments after the serving platter had arrived on my side of the lazy susan. I was eating Sichuan cooking for the first time at the source – Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. I hate to sound disloyal to Hunan, but it was my best meal to date in China. Take the kung pao chicken, making the first of three appearances that weekend, and welcome each time. It had the same ingredients we would get if we ordered it at home: tiny cubes of chicken, peanuts, the ubiquitous dried red peppers. But the chicken was incredibly tender, and the sauce seemed infinitely layered, the spice covering a tiny bit of sweetness, for a delicate rather than overpowering effect.
In Sichuan, even the wonton soup at an airport chain restaurant café can be wonderful. A giant bowl came on a tray accompanied by small dishes of pickled cucumber and fresh watermelon chunks, with chopsticks and a small ladle that served as an oversized soupspoon. Translucent wide noodles were tightly wrapped around little bundles of finely chopped chicken (or possibly very white pork), and bits of ginger and scallion were not only visible but identifiable by their fresh flavors.
Another highlight of the weekend’s dining was crisp lotus root, chopped into small cubes and served cold in a salad or tossed with pork. Other dishes are too numerous to mention, arriving as they did on one platter after another, punctuated by tureens of soup, but the least of them would be a standout in any Chinese restaurant in New York. I may even be starting to like tofu, especially when it comes steeped in chili oil. Meanwhile Iris, our tour director, kept apologizing in advance for the breakfast at out hotel in Ya’an — no fruit juice, she warned us, and no American-style food, maybe just some cakes. But when morning came, Pam and I were delighted to find a chafing dish full of bao zi, the steamed buns that are just what we like for breakfast on campus in Xiangtan, in three varieties, and excellent ones at that. As usual, I reached for the ones stuffed with pork.
Oliver, our Chengdu-based guide, explained before the first meal that Sichuan cooking was based on two kinds of seasoning: the spicy-hot of the red peppers (though nothing I ate in Sichuan was as outrageously spicy as some dishes I’ve had in Hunan) and “the numbing seed.” I had already been wondering about the seasoning in my new favorite fast food, what I call the “Chinese burritos” from a stand around the corner from my apartment in Xiangtan. They consist of thin slices of beef (pork and egg also available) rolled with spears of cucumber and scallion in a white pancake, thinly spread with a sauce that doesn’t so much numb my tongue as make it tingle all over, as if the tongue itself is effervescing. “What is the numbing seed?” I asked Oliver. “I don’t know how you call it in English,” he answered sheepishly. I pressed him: “Is it small and round, and maybe pinkish-brown?” “It grows on a tree,” he countered, not quite answering the question I had asked. But by now I was pretty sure of my suspicions. When a small brown sphere dropped onto my plate from a piece of meat or vegetable, I bit, and there it was, that distinctive tingling/numbing sensation. Unless I’m very much mistaken, the “numbing seed” is what we call in English – what else? – the Sichuan peppercorn. Used rarely in Western cooking and sparingly in Chinese food in America, it is often said to produce a sensation rather than a flavor.
The sad thing about being in China here is that I can’t call out for Chinese food on demand, practically a constitutional right in New York. Even if restaurants here delivered, how on earth would I call in the order? You can’t point over the phone.