Recap: A Taste of China, Episode 5: Sizzling Sichuan, 3.9.21
A Taste of China is an online series in partnership with WildChina pairing taste with place to explore China’s vast culinary landscape.
In the series’ fifth episode, we traveled live to to Chengdu, the cosmopolitan capital of Sichuan province, a city known equally for its teahouses and leisurely lifestyle, its spicy hot pot, and its funky rap scene! We chatted onsite with a chef from the Sichuan Culinary Institute; Jing Gao (JG), a young Chengdu native who is bringing great Sichuan flavors to the U.S.; and Fuchsia Dunlop (FD), a leading western expert on Sichuan cuisine—who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute herself!
Full Video of A Taste of China, episode 5: Sizzling Sichuan
Quotes From the Conversation
JG: I grew up in Europe and Canada so I moved every year of my life from five through High School, to a different country, with a different language – my father was a nuclear physicist – so growing up I felt disconnected from my heritage and this identity rooted in being Chinese. I only reclaimed my birthname ‘Jing’ last year, I was constantly code-switching. After university I had the opportunity to go to China, and I was working in Tech and it dawned on me how disconnected I was. [The connection] happened through food. …I realized how little we know about [Chinese food] in the West. I left my job in tech and founded a restaurant in Shanghai.
Fly by Jing is named for ‘fly restaurants.’ That’s what people call restaurants in Chengdu, because they are known to be so delicious that no matter how shabby or hard to find people will flock to them like flies. It is flavor above all else. That is the defining characteristic of Chengdu people- they are all about the art of living, leisure, flavor, and hedonistic pursuits maybe…what is beautiful about fly restaurants is that they are an equalizer. You see people from all backgrounds- bicycles parked next to Ferraris. They are the lifeblood of Chengdu dining and food culture.
There was a perception that Chinese food was dirty and cheap. I know that this is not the case. I was inspired by ‘fly’ restaurants because I saw so many young restauranteurs not bound by rules. People want to put Chinese food in a box: if it isn’t this way it isn’t authentic. There tends to be a claim of the cuisine. The greatest cuisines evolve and thrive when they evolve.
Zhang Mei (of WildChina): What do you love about Chengdu?
JG: My mom said you can hear the clinking of mahjong tiles before you land in Chengdu. Park culture is huge. I don’t know how people hang out in parks all day—don’t they have to work?—but they have it down.
ZM: Why did you call your Fly By Jing product ‘chili crisp’?
JG: It is a reference to mouth feel and textures. Chinese food we know is about many different things: about flavor, the way it looks, the mouth feel…I don’t feel it is the perfect word to encompass what it is, but it is close. We use a pepper called ‘tribute’ pepper because it is the pepper that was given to the Emperor. It is only grown in one region of China. Before we started exporting it, it wasn’t available outside of China.
FD: Everyone falls in love with Chengdu. There is a saying that when you are young you shouldn’t go to Sichuan because you will fall in love and not want to do anything. People [there] are funny and open-minded. It has a reputation for being a leisurely city.
Though Chengdu has banquet cooking at its highest levels, its street food is [what it is most known for]. I had the best Chinese food I had in my entire life near a bus station! Lots of fresh green vegetables and all these lovely colors, and it is all accessible. Fragrant Eggplant, when using Sichuan cooking techniques, becomes something ambrosial. It is fantastic.
Dinda Elliott (of China Institute): What do Westerners not understand about Sichuanese cooking?
FD: I think people are taken in by this drama that [Sichuan cuisine] is about chilis and oils. It is so much more subtle than that. …Sichuan cooking…is an exciting journey. Some are spicy and hot, some are entirely savory, some are very lightly flavored. It is all about balance. In Sichuan, you have these dramatic highs and these gentle lows.
DE: We now transition to the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, for a conversation with Teacher Zheng Wei and Teacher Li.
Teacher Zheng Wei (ZW): They are in the middle of a class making mapo tofu! They first step is the oil. Then you add the bean paste. The oil is going to bring out the color and aroma of the bean paste. Then you add the chicken stock.
DE: What is the most important part of making mapo tofu?
ZW: The most important step is getting all the ingredients ready. [We] are using soft tofu. The Sichuan pepper needs to be added last to preserve the flavor. If you add it too early it will evaporate. Be careful not to add too much salt.
ZM: He also added ground beef, which he sauteed on low heat so it was flavorful already. This is truly high cuisine. He adds the beef in two batches so it brings out the flavor in the tofu and then another layer so it gets crispy.
ZW: Now he adds cornflower to thicken it, twice. He also adds the plant that grows out of the garlic [twice]. The first time, he will add the white part, and the second time the green part. And now the ground peppercorn. No amount is too much. Because the tofu is hot, it releases the aromas of the peppercorn quickly.
ZW: Balancing all the flavors and controlling the taste and textures of the food after it comes into contact with the heat is the most important!
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