It’s not just the food that’s sizzling in China’s famously laid-back south-western city.
Balancing a candle on his forehead, Wu carefully crawls backwards under the legs of an old wooden pew while his rancorous wife, swathed in a scarlet dress, lips pursed and fists clenched hard against her hips, glares at him from across the room. Twisting his face in angst, a drip of sweat rolls off Wu’s hairless head and splashes onto the gleaming wooden floor. Still balancing the precarious candle, he stands up and sighs with relief- but his angry wife hasn’t finished yet. Screaming, she orders him back through the pew again.
Somebody giggles, and another, inducing fits of laughter to ring around the room. Diners, no longer transfixed on the fate of the clever clown and his despotic wife, return to plates piled high with slithers of food as peculiar as the entertainment: shark lips, ostrich gizzards, ferns, peacock brains, alligator liver and oxen artery, all waiting to be popped into of various tubs of fiery hotpot.
This is the theatre restaurant at Zijin Huang Cheng Lao Ma, a new rendition of an old dining Sichuan tradition which blends the region’s notorious hotpot with a witty program of spitting fire, changing faces and acrobatics from junior Shaolin monks – masters of the 1500-year-old Chinese martial art, Kung Fu. Jumping, squatting, twirling and striking, the monks reenact story lines from old folklore- like the ‘iron buffalo ploughs through the field’ as the ‘blue dragon wags its tail’. It’s quite possibly the most entertaining dining experience to be had in the Middle Kingdom.
Roughly translated as “numb and spicy”, hotpot originated in Sichuan more than a thousand years ago to people who even then were renowned for liking their food with combustible- if not painful- levels of spice. Variations of the original dish now stretch from Tokyo to Thailand, but seasoned with the feisty, tingly, firecracker Sichuan pepper, Chengdu hotpot is still in a league of its own.
There is no limit to what you can put into hotpot- as many restaurants, which boast up to 100 different ingredients- can attest. The main rule of thumb is that it should produce a fine texture when met with the boiling broth. Then, the weirder and wackier the name and source, the better- like “three pronged ducks tongue” and the rather alarming “urine-soaked beef balls”. Diffident diners can opt for handfuls of exotic fungi, pungent black truffles and “Lao Ma’s beef”- a succulent sliver of meat which stays tender no matter how long it is cooked for.
Tables at hotpot restaurants usually have two cauldrons of broth for diners to cook their food in- a flaming soup seasoned with garlic, chili and the indomitable Sichuan pepper which should be treated with upmost caution in one, and a subtle fish or chicken based soup to put out the flames in the other. The cooked food is then dipped in a paste of sesame, garlic, soya sauce – and if you’re a local, more chilly and that zingy pepper.
Sichuan cuisine- otherwise known as Szechwan- is what some consider China’s finest cuisine. Its distinctive flavor comes from the firecracker Sichuan pepper which tingles and numbs the lips and tongue. Harvested from a prickly ash tree clinging to the rolling hills which rising up behind the Sichuan Basin and onto the Tibetan Plateau, the deep red spice (which is actually the husk of a fruit) delivers such a punch it makes even jalapeños seem mild.
Seasoned Sichuanese add the spirited pepper to almost everything: Mapo Daofu – literally “Grandma Chen’s bean-curd”- has cubes of soft bean-curd swimming in a thick lip tingly broth. Kung Pao chicken tosses bits of bird with pepper and peanuts, while Dan Dan, or Carry Pole Noodles-which gets its name from the long poles mobile vendors used while selling the dish on the streets- teams pickled vegetables with beef and pepper sauce poured over wheat noodles.
Although fancy restaurants like Huang Cheng Lao Ma – with its subtle wood trimmings and décor blending old Chinese style with contemporary clean lines- offer visitors a night out in style, like in the rest of Asia, the same great food is often found at a street vendor for less than $1.
But the cuisine’s feisty nature is hardly a reflection on the city of eleven million, which, although modern in every sense of the word, maintains a distinct laid-back village feel. Famous for their phlegmatic spirits, most Chenduians seem far more content reveling in the old traditions- notably those associated with theatre, eating and drinking tea- than trying to catch up with the rest of China’s break-neck speeds.
With twice as many tea houses per capital than Shanghai, its tea- perhaps even more than pepper- is what really defines this city. Any spare time Chengduians have is usually spent in one of the cities many teahouses- relaxing, observing, drinking- anything but working. The ancient Chinese dictum “The Mountains are high and the Emperor is far away,” seems tailor made for here.
Clusters of bamboo tables and chairs, tea houses spread out beside temples and lakes, in parks, even by the side of the road. Attendants circulate, sprinkling pinches of leaves into ceramic cups and graciously topping them up with steaming water from a long-necked kettle. People play mahjong or chess, gossip, talk business, and nibble on boiled chicken’s feet dipped in pepper. Wizened looking fortune tellers and ear pickers armed with metal tongs and swabs of cotton circulate for customers. Other tea drinkers watch the opera- not the Peking variety which originated in Beijing- but a home grown fantasy of song, dance and elaborate costume and changing faces performances, where a villain skillfully and furtively swaps identities to avoid recognition.
Despite Chengdu’s arduous love for traditionalism, these days the city is finding it difficult to escape China’s whirlwind development. Neighbourhoods of cobbled streets and rickety old wooden houses with mossy clay-tile roofs are being torn down to make way for snazzy office towers and gleaming shopping malls. Competing with fast food chains and computer games, many of the old theatres and theatre restaurants are becoming as obsolete as the ornate wooden buildings they were once housed in.
Several theatres still operate, including the atmospheric Shu Feng Ya Yun, which have their stage inside a teahouse. But none quite dish out entertainment like the theatre restaurants- where, if you happen to bore of the performance, there is always the menu to muse over.