And I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. One of the reasons (besides the pandas) why we decided to come to Sichuan province was because of the cuisine, which is famous for its use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns have a curious property: they make your mouth go numb, and it's something the Chinese call “ma”. In combination with “la”, the spiciness from regular red chilies, Sichuan cuisine has built a fearsome reputation for its spicy food.We had our first taste of the peppercorn when we went for hotpot a couple of nights ago. We've been for hotpot before, but this was a bit different; rather than boiling broth, it was a concoction of boiling oil, chilies, peppercorns, and other spices. It was bright red and the scent coming off of it was spicy and tingly. We chose a couple of things off of the menu, which luckily was in English (avoiding the “urinating beef balls” and “ox penis” but at least getting some tripe and beef tendon), dumped it into the boiling oil, and hoped for the best. I fished out a piece of beef, dunked it in some sesame oil, cilantro and scallions, and carefully bit into it. My mouth immediately caught on fire from the red chilies, but as I continued chewing this curious sensation spread on my tongue – my mouth was turning numb from the peppercorns! It's so hard to describe it, I was totally weirded out at first. Maybe it's a bit like when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and your tongue feels furry, but multiply it by ten and maybe you'd come close. As we've been eating, we've noticed that the peppercorn is in everything – the stir fries, the noodles, the soups. Sometimes they're added in whole, sometimes they're sneaky about it and crush it up. So while you're eating your mouth goes numb and you didn't even know what hit you. Even for breakfast! I can see why people like it so much though, the interplay between the fiery red chilies and the peppercorns is such a great combination. I especially love the the dried fried red chilies, when done just right they're a bit crispy, oily, fragrant and spicy, I end up picking them out of the dish and finishing them before we've even eaten the rest of the food. Eating out here is very inexpensive – on average we're spending about $6 US for any given meal, sometimes as little as 75 cents (!) – but it's finding the right ones that can be tough. Small mom and pop places are everywhere in the city, we've passed by so many I can't even keep count. They're little open air joints with a couple of tables, sometimes the kitchen is open to the eating area, sometimes it's in the back. We've evolved some rules though to decide how to pick one.
- Walk around during meal times. Then you can see which ones are busy. If it's busy, there must be a reason why!
- If it's a busy one, look at the floor and the surrounding environment – are there tons of napkins and debris on the ground? If so, skip it because the kitchen is probably disgusting. If the place looks clean, better chance that the kitchen will be clean too.
- What are people ordering? If the menu is only in Chinese, then it's easier if you go to busy place and point at something that you might want to try than to struggle to string together a sentence. Going into an empty restaurant is tough.
- Do the proprietors seem welcoming or at least interested in your business? Skip it if they scowl at you.
- How does it smell? If it's stinky you probably don't want to go there, and conversely if it smells good then check it out. Trust your nose.
We've actually had a lot of good meals at random places that we'll never know the name of by following the rules to some extent. We had amazing dumplings in Langzhong, they were so good that we went back for breakfast a second time.Another thing that was inevitable is that ordering off the menu when you can't read and communicate is a crap shoot. Especially when there are no pictures. Sometimes it just comes down to opening the menu and pointing at something, because saying “What do you recommend?” in Chinese (at least my Chinese) draws blank stares. On the train we were lucky and ended up ordering fish fragrant pork, something that is pretty basic and non-scary. At a hole-in-the-wall which we found via EatingAsia, we managed to order some delicious stir fried beans and the fish fragrant pork again (yes, we've learned to identify that one at least.) At other meals we were not so fortunate, one dish was a bunch of offal that neither of us could identify – maybe it was chicken intestine, maybe not? The dish itself was mediocre, and maybe I am better off not knowing what it was. Another meal we ended up ordering snake. Glad I experienced it, but probably wouldn't order it again. So kids: learn your Chinese, you will thank me in the end! I have to say that I am not fond of the packaged drinks and snacks in Sichuan. Actually, the bottled drinks are quite awful. They're all sugary and fake tasting, real juice does not exist, not even at froofy drink stands. At least in Sichuan it's hard to get a decent cup of tea unless you're at a teahouse, but we haven't really honed our mahjong skills enough to feel comfortable hanging out in one for more than a half hour or so. Coffee is crappy/non-existent. Snacks tend to be overly pungent or that snappy texture that seems to offend Westerners to no end, or are crappy horrible ripoffs of brand names like Pringles. I keep dreaming of all the lovely fruit juices and kopi-o in Singapore and the fresh coconuts in Thailand. However, we had some great freshly prepared snacks at a pedestrian area known as Jin Li Street. Sichuan is also known for its xiao chi, literally “small eats”. Vendors specialize in one type or another, it can range from various types of fried meat on a stick similar to kebabs to tofu with molasses sauce. Often these are just street vendors, which we've been avoiding them for the sake of the peace of our stomachs. But we were able to sample a bunch of these snacks at Jin Li Street, as the sanitary conditions are a bit more standardized. Our favorite by far was a combo dish of five types of vegetarian rice rolls, they were savory and a bit spicy, and each had its own texture. All in all, we've really enjoyed the food here and are glad that we had a chance to try it. Next up on our plates later on this week: yak meat and other Tibetan delicacies! Stay tuned…