I travelled to the Chinese province of Sichuan to visit some interesting limestone formations. Sichuan is known for its food – very spicy food. I am game for almost any food, but “very spicy” is outside of my comfort zone. Beads of sweat start forming on my shiny bald forehead as soon as I see or smell very spicy food and it only gets worse once I start consuming it. I was there for the natural scenery, not the food.
Unfortunately, I fell for the old trick of calling someone “yellow”. A friend suggested that I was not adventurous enough to try the local food – I had to have a Sichuan hot pot while I was in Sichuan. I decided that I would try one hot pot and put this nonsense to rest.
In any case, I am pretty adventurous with local food while travelling. Breakfast, the day after my arrival in the town of Wulong, was a bowl of noodles with the reddest and scariest-looking soup I had ever seen. I left a pile of tissue papers on my table after mopping my brow with them through the course of breakfast.
Lunch was a fried rice with a variety of chopped pieces of sausage, fish, potatoes and other stuff.
I also snacked on stuffed buns of various sorts.
Wulong is the access point to beautiful limestone rock scenery and cave systems. The town was ugly and there was construction everywhere, with the main positive being the array of restaurants that lined the streets. My friend who had challenged me to have hot pot recorded the Mandarin for “not too spicy” – “bu yau thai la” – for me so I could get the point across.
As I walked around, I found a place that looked interesting and looked in through the window. Its neon light had a picture of a fire on it. A waitress saw me and called me in. I entered and found a table. She brought me the menu; it was entirely in Chinese. I asked her to just pick something for me. “Bu yau thai la”, I added. She seemed to understand the second part. After some negotiation, she became convinced that I did not want to pick the food myself. She selected an item of food and showed me its English translation. I approved. She did the same for the rest of the stuff. I had ordered bacon, tender beef, tomatoes, cauliflower, frozen fish and bamboo shoots. I also ordered a bottle of beer. They brought me a room-temperature beer. Upon my request, they put it back into a freezer to chill it. The Chong Qing white beer was quite good.
In front of me was placed a massive bowl with scarily-red soup broth. Then the waitress placed a can of what looked like edible oil in front of me. As directed, I emptied it into a small bowl next to me and poured some chopped greens and ginger into it, along with some soy sauce. Then she brought the mains. There was also a cup of tea and a bowl of tang yuan – glutinous rice balls in sweet syrup. The restaurant staff clearly took me for an incompetent, because there was always someone at my table helping me with the cooking while the other guests managed on their own. This was a fantastic experience. On occasion, my neighbours helped the waitress with some translations to help us communicate; it seemed to be a generally entertaining experience for the other diners.
I found the soup to be edible; not exactly to my tastes, but not unpalatably spicy. I particularly enjoyed the tender beef and the pork, but didn’t care at all for the cauliflower. Everything else was in between. I sweated so much that I had used up a great deal of tissue papers to mop my brow in a short time. The waitress who had first spoken to me showed me her phone: “Spicy or not”, the app asked. I gave her an OK sign. I tried to tip them for the service. The girl who handed me the change declined. I left it on the table. The first one showed me her phone again: “We do not accept tips. Thank you for coming to our shop.” Very well, then. I pocketed the change. They all came over to say bye before I left.
This was all very nice and fantastic. I awoke the next day energetic and ready for an adventure. Then I went to the toilet three times before an hour had passed. After ten-years of semi-hardcore travelling, I had diarrhoea for the first time due to a Sichuan hot pot.
I was annoyed and it was not the best of days, but the trip was not yet over. I got to try a few more things. In the city of Chongqing later that day, I tried some of the best skewers of meat that I had – fatty, juicy and delicious.
Chongqing’s Food Street and old town provided other gems.
Finally it was time to leave. Past airport security I found to my disgust that there was exactly one restaurant, aside from the Starbucks. There was no shortage of duty-free shops but food to consume on the spot was lacking. A bunch of restaurants stood behind a 2-metre high barrier, tantalisingly out of reach. To make matters worse, the restaurant seemed to be out of everything. The waiter mentioned one food item they had that I was willing to consume; so I ordered my food and picked a drink. I was asked to pay 10 dollars. This seemed excessive, but I handed over 100 yuan. The guy had meant 10 yuan for the drink alone. Fortunately another staff came along who was fractionally more intelligent than this imbecile and they figured that I actually wanted to eat (after I had already spent five minutes perusing the menu). My last meal in Sichuan was some generic rubbish that may be considered acceptable to sell to tourists. My hunger was gone, but I was disappointed.
My take on Sichuan food: go for the delicious barbecues, not the soups.