Passing through busy streets, weaving in and out of narrow alleyways, heading deeper into the heart of the city, I finally see it at the corner. Beneath a dilapidated building, two old people stand beside a rusty iron tricycle, two square tables and a few benches, the air filled with the aroma of egg, sugar, and salt. This is Lu Ji Egg-Baked Pastry.
The egg-baked pastries sold here date back to the 23rd year of the Daoguang Emperor, who reigned as part of the Qing Dynasty in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The story goes that, beside the Shishi Academy on Chengdu’s Wenmiao Street, an old man inspired by childhood banquets with his Aunt mixed eggs, fermented dough and a liberal amount of brown sugar together in a large flat pan. So delicious were the resulting pastries, so crispy in texture, that they soon became a delicacy in Sichuan.
As I approach, the red rust of the tricycle becomes more obvious, an old wooden glass cabinet sat atop its frame. The cabinet itself displays a collage of the stall’s recent history, as well as holding the restaurant’s ingredients and bearing the signboard above.
In the center is a picture of the current proprietor cooking his egg-baked pastries live on television; it seems the unassuming grandpa before me is something of a celebrity. Above the photo is a sign, paper glued to a wooden frame, the details faded by time leaving a faint yellow stain.
The characters for egg-baked pastry, danhonggao (蛋烘糕), are emblazoned large and red, with smaller characters left and right reading ‘Chengdu style’ and ‘traditional snack.’ Above and below the name ‘Lu Ji’ and the location, ‘Workers Village Block 2,’ are rendered in black. At the bottom of the cabinet is the handwritten, yellowing price list. Everything is, somewhere in this tiny space, explained.
Beside the cabinet of ingredients is the baking station, where the grandpa makes his renowned pastries for arriving patrons. The grandma greets me as I approach, encouraging me to take a seat and asking what I want to eat. I order the spiced version, mouth watering with anticipation. Grandpa hears my order, and the figure behind the old metal cart springs to life; an elderly couple, one stall and the same scene played out for the past thirty years.
Grandpa’s family name is Hu – the name Lu Ji comes instead from grandma’s line who are named Lu, the skill of making baked-egg pastries having been passed down through the generations of her family. Maybe because he is the more talkative of the two, or perhaps simply because he’s better at making the pastries, it is grandpa Hu who fronts the operation, while grandma Lu prepares the dough, serves the food and cleans up after customers.
Due to the pandemic, there are none of the usual queues when I arrive, and once the young couple who arrived before us have left it is just me and my best friend. While my friend and grandpa chat away in Sichuanese, grandma has time to relax on a soft chair in front of the tricycle and take a nap.
Maintaining this kind of life in the heart of Chengdu’s old town isn’t easy, and this elderly couple have had to master the art of refusal to survive downtown. Tourists have come, looking to learn the recipe. They said no. They have been asked to open high-end eateries in Taikoo Li and Kuanzhai Alley. They refused. Five-star hotels have approached them for partnerships. They stood firm and declined.
They have been filmed by Sichuan and Zhejiang television stations, visited by celebrities such as Zhang Liangying and Nicholas Tse, and invited to international food shows. It’s no wonder little stalls like this, hidden away in old districts, are aflame with popularity. Yet they weathered this storm, and by doing things their way they have attained a certain peace that only comes from staying true to one’s heart.
In this age of constant change, in a city transforming rapidly around them, they have persisted with their original approach. When other vendors switched to gas, they continued to use coal briquettes until environmental policies eventually stopped them. When additives became ubiquitous in food they adhered to their old recipe without. When the craze for new flavors took hold, they remained adamant that the original ones were best. When other stalls’ prices rose astronomically in the early 90s, they kept theirs fair and affordable.
While not all those unwilling to adapt are worthy of praise, I am grateful to this couple for their obstinacy. It is this refusal to change that gives us the chance to travel back in time from the gleaming skyscrapers of the modern city to the old Chengdu of decades ago. In the future, this too will likely fade with time. I count myself lucky to have seen it as it was.