China recognizes around eight distinct regional cuisines. The food in Shanghai is a bit oily and bland, but the food in Sichuan Province (home of two stops on our trip – Lijiang and Chengdu) is notoriously spicy and delicious.
Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles
In Lijiang, Cath and I asked Li Qiong to take us to one of her favorite restaurants. She took us out for Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles, a meal and a unique cultural experience! First, the waitress brought each of us a massive bowl of boiling chicken broth, a big pile of rice noodles and many small bowls with portions of pig liver, intestines, stinky tofu, spring onions, a raw egg, chicken, bamboo shoots, white fish and bean sprouts. We dumped those small portions and the noodles into the broth and left it alone to simmer for a few minutes. Another plate had tiny servings of pickled vegetables, spicy mushrooms, cashews, deep-fried pork and spicy vegetable salad, so we picked at those tasty morsels in the meantime. Oddly, another side dish was a bowl of “black chicken” soup full of chicken skin and bones. Not my favorite.
Confusing sign that explained what we were eating:
|From Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles|
Another culinary highlight of our time in Lijiang was the Tibetan Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ate twice. Among our favorite dishes – puffy steamed buns filled with sweet cheese, salty green beans, and tofu “meat” with mashed potatoes. Bonus: the owner and the waiter taught us some Tibetan phrases that came in handy when we got to Lhasa.
Chilling with Li Qiong and the restaurant owner and waiter:
|From Tibetan Vegetarian Restaurant|
One of the most memorable experiences of our whole trip involved eating in Chengdu. We had just visited the adult panda dorm at the Ya’an Panda Conservation Center when our guide, Deng Li, told us it was lunchtime. Originally, his plan was to drive all the way down the mountain to a restaurant that catered to western tourists. However that would have wasted a couple hours of our day, and I think he realized that Cath and I weren’t too fussy about our food.
“Our driver wants to cook for you,” Deng Li said. We exited the panda center, crossed the street, and walked up the steps to a Chinese guesthouse. We followed Deng Li to the kitchen, where our driver, Luo Shifu, stood in the light of an exposed bulb with flies all over his shoulders. He grinned at us and proudly gestured at his meal in progress. The counters were littered with greasy dishes and chopped vegetables. The wok bubbled with an oily concoction of pork and lots of spicy chili peppers. Cath and I exchanged looks of horror. We couldn’t decide which was scarier: the utter lack of sanitation in the kitchen or the fiery food’s potential toll on our unsuspecting intestines.
Luo Shifu in the kitchen:
|From Luo Shifu|
We shuffled mutely out to the concrete patio, where plastic tables and chairs were set with grimy bowls and chopsticks. The guesthouse owner brought us beer, which we happily drank from the bottle. Unfortunately, Deng Li noticed and graciously tracked down some dirty glasses for us. Cath and I waited nervously for our lunch.
Luo Shifu emerged from the kitchen and placed the bowl of spicy pork in the middle of the table. When the oily steam made my eyes water, I couldn’t imagine what would happen when I took a bite. Tentatively, I raised the chopsticks to my mouth and took a nibble of the pork. The juice nearly melted my lips, but the meat was delicious. Gradually, our driver filled the table with some of the most scrumptious food I’ve ever eaten. In addition to the blazing hot pork dish, he whipped up another pork-and-veggie delicacy, battered eggplant in a spicy sauce, and asparagus stalks. The guesthouse owner also brought out tofu and rice. Although he didn’t speak any English, Luo Shifu clearly appreciated our gushing praise of his culinary creations.
After the feast, I pulled tissues out of my bag to mop my sweaty brow while our driver cleared the table. When he returned, he brought two flowers plucked from the guesthouse garden. To his amusement, Cath and I stuck the flowers in our hair.
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Local (very local) Fare
After playing with the baby pandas, Luo Shifu drove us back to our hotel at the base of the mountain. Our “four-star hotel” featured lots of marble and gilding, but also mildew, faded carpeting and bugs. I had to talk Cath off a ledge when she spotted a roach in our room, but we flushed the little guy and then headed downstairs to eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. In the lobby, Deng Li intercepted us to say the driver wanted to take us to a local restaurant. We found it odd that the driver seemed to be calling the shots a lot during our visit, but we had to admit he seemed to know a thing or two about food.
We drove to the restaurant, where the driver dramatically ordered for us. Soon waitresses delivered the dishes: a whole smoked duck, an enormous fish in a sweet-and-sour sauce, a platter of fried spicy green peppers, twice-cooked pork, and tofu soup with mushrooms, meatballs and bamboo shoots. The meal really was an example of brilliant ordering. Each bite complemented the bite before with a tantalizing mix of flavors and textures.
While we enjoyed the meal, we noticed a group of men at a nearby table who were having even more fun. They pulled their shirts up to their nipples to cool off, chain smoked, spit out their duck bones on the floor, passed around a bottle of rice wine, and howled with laughter at stories we couldn’t understand.