Almost all of the Chinese food we eat in India is Sichuanese, claims-to-be-Sichuanese or is clearly influenced by the flavours of Sichuan. This was not always so, but ever since the Taj group launched the Golden Dragon in Mumbai in 1974 and then, the House of Ming in Delhi in 1978, Indians have been crazy about teekha Chinese cuisine.
Without the influence of Sichuan, there would be no Chicken Manchurian, no Indian-Chinese food, no thela-wallahs making spicy fried rice and no Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine.
We don’t realise this, but Indians may be the world’s largest group of Sichuan food lovers outside of Sichuan. Even in China, the cuisines of Beijing and Canton are far more respected, while Sichuan food is regarded as a spicy, hearty, peasant cuisine.
I have eaten Sichuan food all over the world. But I had never eaten it in Sichuan. To the astonishment of everyone, I announced that I would take my summer vacation this year in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
There are no direct flights from India, so I found a connection via Bangkok and spoke to the general manager of Chengdu’s Ritz-Carlton. I was coming to eat, I said. Could his staff take me to the places they liked to eat at themselves? I wanted no tourist traps and no fancy places where the food had been watered down to make it easier for outsiders to enjoy.
There was a method to my apparent madness. I always say that I love Sichuan food. But if I haven’t ever eaten it in Sichuan, then am I talking about the real thing? And if I write about Chinese restaurants in India (which I sometimes do), then can I base my judgements of their food on Sichuan meals I have had in London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan? Shouldn’t I learn about the cuisine in its home?
And so, off we went to Sichuan, where Nick He and Kevin Xue of the Ritz had prepared a list of places we should go to. I was sceptical about how ‘local’ these places would be till we arrived at the first one and discovered that though this was a formal restaurant with private dining rooms, not one member of the staff spoke English. All the menus were in Chinese. But one of them had photos. So, as the Chinese staff giggled, I pointed to various items. We decided that as pictures could be misleading, we should order twice the number of dishes we needed to ensure that we ended up with things we liked.
As it turned out, I had only made one blunder. A dish that looked like minced pork in the photos was indeed minced pork. But what I had not been able to tell was that it was a garnish for a whole (giant, really) fish. This led to another comedy of errors. While the fish stared disgustedly at us, we tried very hard to cut off bits. Eventually, we gave up and asked the staff if they could serve it to us or get the chef to carve it.
They had no clue what we were talking about. I mimed cutting gestures. They looked bemused. I acted out a little playlet in which a fish is taken to the kitchen and cut into little pieces. They looked at me curiously.
Finally I managed to get the message across. A senior lady server came in, easily carved the fish, pulling out its spine with a flick of her knife and served it to us.
I would love to be able to say it was delicious. But actually, we hated it.
The rest of the food, however, was magnificent. A dish of beans and pork was delicious; the kung pao chicken (perhaps the most famous Sichuan dish in the world, no matter how you spell it) had a perfect blend of sweetness and hotness, the chunks of chicken were exactly cut to the size of the peanuts and the stir-frying was brilliant.
The star of the show, however, was Ma Po Tofu, a classic Sichuan dish that has been submitted to many indignities in its travels around the world’s Chinese restaurants. It consists of chunks of tofu in a bubbling thin red sauce, bursting with the flavours of chilli and the mouth-puckering Sichuan pepper, which are the distinctive characteristics of the dish. I like it anyway, but my wife who is not a tofu fan had a road to Damascus moment, discovering that she really loved it.
This was followed by more comedy. The staff did not know what ‘bill’ or ‘check’ meant. My wife, whose turn it was to do the mime show, made the standard, can-I-get-the-bill gesture with her right hand, only to discover that they thought she wanted a pen. (Well, the gesture is confusing.)
Then, we discovered that the word taxi is unknown in Chinese. So is cab. Finally, a confident-looking new waiter appeared, indicated that he knew what we meant and beckoned for us to follow. We walked behind him till he led us to the toilet. “Ah?” he said proudly, “WC.”
Finally, we just walked out onto the road and hailed a cruising cab. But that may have been the best meal of the trip. For most of our other meals, Nick and Kevin sent us to food streets where there were rows and rows of Chinese dhabas. Of course, no one spoke English. But in a way, this was a blessing because it stopped me from ordering the few dishes I knew well. We chose by pointing at menus at random, and rarely were we disappointed. We had succulent double-cooked pork, the famous fish-flavoured eggplant (in Sichuan, ‘fish-flavoured’ is a style of cooking that does not involve using fish), mounds of fried rice, each grain fragranced with egg, little prawns floating in a lake of fragrant chilli oil, bits of chicken resting on a bed of chopped red chilli and of course, more Ma Po Tofu.
By the second day, we had discovered that all servers understood you if you said ‘Ma Po Tofu’ very loudly. So we ordered it everywhere. At a roadside shack in Leshan, the waitresses giggled with delight to hear us say it and when it appeared, in its noisily bubbling sichuan-pepper oil, the chef came out to see if we liked it.
Eventually, on our last day, we went to the famous Chen Ma Po Tofu restaurant. Legend has it that a woman called Mrs Chen invented the dish in 1862. Poor old Mrs Chen had scars on her face, so the dish was named Ma Po (which means ‘pock-marked’) by not-very-nice-people. It is not clear if the famous restaurant that bears her name has anything to do with Mrs Chen (Kevin seemed confident that it was over a century old), but it is a place of pilgrimage in Sichuan with long queues at every meal.
By now we were used to the language barrier, so I pointed to various photos on the menu and said Ma Po Tofu very loudly. My server responded with a stream of Chinese, which I did not understand, so I just smiled a lot while she looked exasperated.
She returned with our meal 20 minutes later (which included a terrific Sichuan eggplant) and two kinds of tofu. One was the Ma Po Tofu that I had eaten all over Chengdu. But the bigger bowl (and the one everyone else seemed to be ordering) had a single huge piece of tofu (no chunks) in the traditional sauce and a topping of fried soya bean noodles and crisp soya beans. It was hard not to think of channa-sev or misal pav. But the garnishes added to the texture and I could see why this was the most famous tofu restaurant in Sichuan.
All the other meals now fade into a Sichuan-pepper blur, but I remember having more fun and better food than I have had in a long time. The hotel got us into Chengdu’s most exclusive restaurant, an 18-cover place in a private house run by Lan Guijun, called the best chef in China by Fuchsia Dunlop, the most respected Western writer on Chinese food. I think perhaps we were too inexperienced to fully appreciate the excellence of the food.
And on our last Saturday, Kevin drove us to the places he had been to as a child. We stopped on the street and ate the little snacks that Sichuan is famous for: egg pancakes with savoury fillings, deep-fried hot dogs, cold spicy noodles, delicate but still robust dumpling and more. Kevin did not know any of the English names (if they had them), which I found kind of reassuring.
Was the food amazing?
You bet it was!
Was it very different from Sichuan food in India? Totally! Sino-Ludhianvi is a cuisine in its own right and should not be confused with Sichuan. As for the Sichuan food served by specialty restaurants in India, only two make the real thing. (Both in Delhi: China Kitchen and Shang Palace.)
So if you want a good Sichuan meal, then go to Sichuan. Flights cost less than Singapore and the hotels are cheaper than Bangkok.
And there are pandas!
I would go every year if I could. This is truly foodie heaven!