May 22, 2009

Louhead's First Guest Blog From China!

While some of us are enjoying our stay-cations, one of my friends is off on a great adventure. It's her second trip to China and her first guest blog post. Linda-Lou is a professor at a university in Minnesota, a singer/songwriter, a foodie, a dog lover, a seasoned traveler and, best of all, a kind soul.

Climbing Jinyun Mountain: Sichuan Cuisine with No Middle-Man

For the true foodie, no trip to China would be complete without a healthy sampling of Sichuan cooking. Known as one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine, Sichuan (Chinese: 四川) food can perhaps be best described by four words: spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant. Complex in flavor and rich in tradition; the food is hearty and unpretentious. No dainty portions or fussy plating. The food is served family style with diners reaching in and taking what they wish with their own chopsticks. As we began our meal our wonderful guide told us of the Chinese proverb that states - “There are no short arms at the table”. The message was simple. Dig in.

And dig in we did, because we were all hungry. Who are we? We are a traveling band of students, plus one professor, from Minnesota. We have the pleasure of spending the next several weeks at Southwest University in Beibei, Chongqing China. Today we climbed to the top of Jinyun Mountain, the largest of the peaks surrounding Beibei. About half way up we dined at the Great Well (大水井). No, that is not a typographical error. The well is great here, not the wall. To be honest, I didn’t actually see the well but the water from the faucets in the outdoor sinks ran cold and clean and was very refreshing to wash hands, face and neck after our long climb on a warm, bordering on hot, day.

The Great Well Restaurant is more like a family home than a restaurant. It is nestled high in the hills, surrounded by bamboo forests, accessible only by steep paths. It is inhabited and run by a family that includes four generations; three were involved in cooking our meal (the fourth was off at school when we arrived). Whatever you call it, the Great Well epitomizes Sichuan cuisine. The food was spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant.

Let’s begin with fresh. In America most of us live our lives rather disconnected from our food. Even if we are avid cooks we likely obtain most of our food partially prepared and neatly packaged from the supermarket. Not so at the Great Well. We arrived, sat down and had a cup of tea while our guide ordered. With the food order in, a live black chicken was selected for us, brought into the kitchen and killed. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. Black chickens are more expensive than white chickens because their strong color is thought to be good for the health. The feathers and skin were definitely black in color and the meat considerably darker than the grocery store birds found in the US. Our chicken was plucked, cleaned, and singed over an open flame in a matter of minutes and the family of chefs swung into action chopping, steaming, and stir-frying in the kitchen, only occasionally slowing down to step around yours truly, who was constantly getting in the way with the camera. The family seemed amused, but not at all annoyed at my curiosity and intrusion into their kitchen.

I watched as the family sliced small, tender fresh bamboo stalks retrieved from a plastic paint bucket where they had been rinsed, spicy pickled ginger and chilies, and fresh lotus root. Corn and pumpkin, were sitting ready for cooking in bowls on the counter. Cucumbers were brought around from the back of the house, which leans into a steep hill, by the eldest generation of the family. It wasn’t until our meal was over that we walked out this way and I saw that the family garden was there. I didn’t recognize all of the crops, but I saw corn and beans and a variety of other plants. I suspect that most, if not all, of the vegetables we were served came from the garden or the surrounding forest. I didn’t see a pig, but one of the students saw a family member leaving a stall located away from the house with some pig’s feet. These did not go into our meal, but I watched the family cut thin slices of smoked pork, and julienne strips of fresh pork loin for stir frying.

With the well-oiled efficiency of those who have worked together forever, the family steamed and stir-fried our food in large woks. When the chilies went into the wok, smoke filled the room, and even the family coughed and sputtered. At this point, with the meal about to begin, I left the kitchen and rejoined the group.

Our meal began in the typical Sichuan manner, with a cold course of tofu that one adds to small dishes of spice mixes or sauces. At the Great Well we ate our tofu with red chili oil laced with small piles of red chilies, ginger and garlic. The cucumbers were added to the table. These were served fresh, salty, and heavily seasoned with garlic. Delicious.

Subsequent courses were rapidly added to the table. Our hot vegetable courses included pumpkin, which was absolutely perfect in its simplicity and as a counterpoint to the spicier dishes, and my personal favorite, green beans prepared Sichuan style, which is quick fried. I don’t know if it is the preparation or the actual beans themselves, they are a bit bigger in size and appear to be harvested at a more mature state than typical European or American green beans. Whatever the reason, the green beans here taste like nowhere else. Often they come highly seasoned with chilies and garlic, but at the Great Well they were served relatively simply, like the pumpkin, highlighting the fresh perfection of the vegetable itself. Bowls of seasoned potatoes that were boiled in a pressure cooker and then stir fried were also added to the table. These were a big hit with the Minnesota natives.

But don’t be alarmed. The Great Well did not miss the mark with the spicy criterion. This came in the meat dishes which were served next. Our chicken was featured in a dish that highlighted the areas signature ingredient, the sichuan peppercorn. These actually bear no relation to black or red peppers but are the outer pods of tiny fruits. In the US I obtain these dried and typically grind them up before adding them to a meal. Those used at the Great Well seemed fresh and were tossed in whole. In and of themselves, sichuan peppercorns aren’t really hot or pungent. They actually have a taste that, to my buds, is lemony and woodsy at the same time. If you bite directly into one, which I enjoy doing though it may be strong for some and is definitely woody in texture, it produces a tingly, numbing sensation in the mouth. It is usually paired with “hot” spices like chilies for one of the trademark tastes of Sichuan cooking. In our chicken dish, the hot spices included mass quantities of pickled ginger and chilies that I’d seen chopped up in the kitchen just minutes ago.

The pork dishes followed. The fresh pork julienne found its way into a spicy and delicious marriage with garlic and fresh chilies. The smoked pork was combined with lotus root and green peppers. At this point, again typical of a meal in China, the rice was served from a gigantic bamboo steaming basket. I’m not sure why, but rice is always served towards the end of a meal in China, perhaps so that guests don’t fill up on it before they are able to sample the many other dishes provided. We added rice to our bowls and placed bits of meat and vegetable on top to be eaten along with the staple. Finally, bowls of some version of steamed bitter greens were brought to the table. These came plain and were absolutely delicious and wonderfully cleansing to the palate. I’ve heard that bitter tastes are good for the digestion and this was good for us, as our climb up the mountain was only two-thirds of the way complete (and this was before we got lost, but that adventure is another story).

We left an hour and a half after we arrived – quite a quick pace by Chinese standards where lunchtime lasts from noon to 2:30 every day, even in university offices and laboratories. This break in the day, unacceptably long by American standards, allows one to linger over a fantastic lunch and even take a short nap when it is through. Perhaps we should add another word to our description of Sichuan cuisine to capture this ability to take time to savor and rest. How about spicy, hot, fresh, fragrant and civilized?


JB said...

That is an awesome post - I really want to go! Thanks for sharing with us all.

Anonymous said...

Looks like so much fun, and delicious.