China has really, really good street food. Its restaurants also tend to be more affordable on the whole. This blend of flavor and value hit new heights last weekend. My roommate and I ventured west to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Sichuan food (sometimes spelled Szechuan in the US) is notoriously spicy and delicious. Sichuan food heavily utilizes the má (麻) spice, which makes your mouth tingle.
Local specialities include dandanmian, a photo of which is below. The noodles look bland when they first arrive, but then you grab some chopsticks and stir. At the bottom of the bowl, there is a puddle of pepper oil which covers the noodle and adds color and spice. Dan (担) means “to carry, or bear.” Apparently the noodles are called dandanmian because they were affordable for laborers. But I got that info from Bing so it might be completely wrong.
Another fun local dish that we tried is called “squirrel-cut eggplant.” There is another dish which I have sampled in Nanjing, called squirrel fish. It involver carefully and intricately slicing a fish into a delicate pattern, then lightly frying. Chengdu does the sample, but using eggplant (it is very far from the sea). We tried the eggplant at the Wenshu Monastery’s lovely vegetarian restaurant.
Outside that restaurant is another fun bit of local flavor: a lively tea house. Chengdu is famous in China for being laid-back, a bit bohemian. Someone once described it as China’s San Francisco to me (no wonder I liked this city). These tea houses are a great expression of that. They are large spaces, indoor and outdoor, with loads of tables and simple wicker chairs. You go and purchase the leaves or flowers for a cup of tea, and then you get unlimited hot water. You can sit all day with friends, and a worker will come by occasionally with a huge, ancient iron kettle and fill you up. It is super affordable, 15-30RMB per cup, and seemed to be a wonderful place especially for older folks to gather. I tried chrysanthemum tea because autumn is when the chrysanthemums bloom and also I panicked and chose a bit randomly because I didn’t want to take too long.
On the whole, Chengdu was a wonderful city and did feel more relaxed than Nanjing. The streets seemed to be a bit wider and the sidewalk less jammed with bikes and motorcycles and construction and people. The scale is also more human. From what I could tell, buildings tended to be more like 3-4 stories, flanked by large trees. It was a wonderful breath of fresh air given that we have hit the midpoint of the term. Both teachers and students are getting tired, so it was nice to get away and explore for a few days. We also joined a tour to a mountain in Chengdu, so I will write more on that later.