Mr. Selfish and I held a belief that we could handle spicy food. Yes, I deliberately used the past tense in that last sentence. After experiencing the Sichuan (aka Szechuan) food, I seriously doubt our ability to handle spicy food.
Sichuan food originates from the southwest of China. It is known for its bold and spicy flavor due to the liberal use of garlic, chili peppers, and the Sichuan peppercorn. This peppercorn is unlike any other peppercorn I’ve ever encountered. In fact, it is not traditionally spicy but actually causes a numbness in your mouth that sets the stage for the other hot spices used.
We decided to try Sichuan hot pot at Shujiuxiang Hot Pot Restaurant. There was a long line out front so we figured it would be good. The queue was based on a number system. Luckily, the staff figured out that we didn’t speak Chinese and tracked us down when our number was up. At that point, we didn’t know how we were going to order since nothing was in English. The staff found a huge menu with lots of photos, and we just pointed to what we wanted. We chose the spicy red hot pot and then randomly pointed at meats and veggies to cook in it.
The hot pot is made of metal with a metal separator. Chili oil, chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorns are heated until they come to a slow boil.
As for our ingredients, we ordered beef filet, beef liver, tofu, mushrooms, and a plate of green veggies. The tofu and mushrooms were my favorite. Mr. Selfish and I both didn’t care for the liver.
We started cooking each of the ingredients, which had varying cooking times. After each ingredient was properly cooked, you fished it out with your chopsticks, shook off the oil and peppercorns, and dipped it in the bowl of oil and garlic prior to eating it. With Sichuan hot pot, you never, ever drink the hot pot broth or fish out the ingredients with a spoon.
After about 10 minutes, I started skipping the part where you dip in the oil since it was so greasy. Shortly thereafter, my mouth was on fire. Apparently, the oil reduces the spiciness of the chili peppers and peppercorns. Without the oil, I could taste all of the chili peppers and peppercorn, and whoa, was it spicy!
Sichuan hot pot was definitely a memorable experience. Aside from my mouth being simultaneously numb and on fire, I couldn’t get pass all of the oil I consumed. I don’t think I would try it again, but there were moments when I enjoyed it.
I am happy to report that the other Sichuan food we tried was not nearly as spicy, but still spicy. While wandering around Chengdu, Mr. Selfish and I happened upon another long queue. Since it was lunch time, we quickly got in line. It turns out that it was a stand for pita snacks stuffed with various meats or veggies. The stand was called ChuanBei Famous Snacks, and the pitas stuffed full of beef and spices were quite tasty. We had an edible fungus pita as well, but that was not as successful.
Another street food stand we found was serving dumplings and spicy noodle soups. They were making the dumplings right out front, and they were quite delicious with a spoonful of chili paste. Mr. Selfish had a bowl of spicy beef noodle soup. Both were amazingly flavorful and only cost 25 yuan total.
Although not necessarily Sichuan cooking, we also found a cookie stand for Mr. Selfish. He had been craving almond cookies ever since we arrived in China. Unfortunately, there were no almond cookies, but there were other very tasty peanut and sunflower seed cookies.
Finally, on our last day in Chengdu, we found a popular restaurant near our hotel for lunch. It was full of locals, and no one spoke English, so it was a bit of a struggle. I tried pointing at the menu but it seemed to confuse the staff. Eventually, I just pointed at the food another couple was eating and indicated that it was what we wanted. That seemed to work. We ended up having a bibimbap and a stir-fry peppers and pork. The bibimbap was random but still good. However, the stir-fry was very tasty. I never had peppers stir-fried so well.
Sichuan food was certainly delicious! Mr. Selfish and I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, we did get a little homesick for Western food and succumbed for two meals while in Chengdu. I’ll go over our Western food experience in Chengdu in my next post.