A Taste of China Episode 5:
Chili, Spice and All Things Sichuan (Event #62)
We’ve partnered with the China Institute to bring you A Taste of China, a travel series that pairs taste with place to explore the Middle Kingdom’s vast culinary landscape.
In this fifth episode, we traveled live to the cosmopolitan capital of Sichuan province – Chengdu – to delve into the city’s bustling food culture and explore the intensely flavored dishes that have made Sichuan cuisine so popular all around the world.
To guide us through this culinary journey, we sat down with a few of Sichuan’s leading culinary experts:
- Teacher Zheng Wei and Teacher Li, chefs at the esteemed Sichuan Culinary Institute
- Jing Gao, a Chengdu native and founder of Fly By Jing who is bringing great Sichuan flavors to the United States
- Fuchsia Dunlop, cookbook author, leading western expert on Sichuan cuisine, and Sichuan Culinary Institute graduate
We capped off the conversation with a live visit to the renowned Sichuan Culinary Institute for a mapo tofu cooking lesson. Catch the event recap here and parts of our conversation below:
Mei: Could you set the stage for us, tell us your story about how you fell in love with Sichuan cuisine?
Jing: I actually didn’t grow up in Chengdu, I grew up in Europe and Canada. Growing up, I felt quite disconnected from my heritage, from this identity rooted in being Chinese. After university, I had the opportunity to go to China. I was in Beijing working in tech and it really dawned on me how disconnected I had become from who I was. I started to try to dig deeper into that and interestingly, it started to happen through food. At first, I was just amazed by the diversity and complexity of Chinese flavors. The more I studied, the more I realized how little we know about Chinese food in the West. I became passionate about shining light on it and it eventually took over my life so much, I left my day job in tech and founded a restaurant in Shanghai.
That led me to what I am doing now: Fly By Jing. Fly By Jing is inspired by the flavors of “fly restaurants” or cangying guang (苍蝇馆), which are these wonderful, hole-in-the-wall restaurants famous in Chengdu. They are known to be so delicious, that no matter how shabby or lacking in atmosphere, people will find them and flock to them in flies.
I was inspired by these restaurants because I feel like they are the lifeblood of Chengdu dining and food culture. There was so much innovation happening with young restauranteurs pushing the fly restaurant concept forward.
Having grown up in the West, I knew that not only was there misrepresentation or misunderstanding about what Chinese food is, there was also active prejudice against Chinese cuisine. People valued it at the lowest end of all the different cultural or ethnic cuisines. There was a perception that it was dirty, cheap, unhealthy; and I knew that that was not the case.
Dinda: What do you love about Chengdu?
Fuchsia: Everyone falls in love with Chengdu. It is not just foreigners; it is Chinese people as well. There is a saying in Chinese that says if you are young you should not go to Sichuan (and when you are old you should not leave). You just fall in love with it and it will dissipate your energies. It is an idle, pleasure-loving city, so ambitious people should steer clear! It is also a very welcoming place. People are funny and open-minded. There is a sort of sense of humor about it that you just catch immediately.
Of course, food is one of the main attractions because the food is just sensational. Although Sichuan does have sophisticated banquet cooking at the highest levels, it is best known for its folk cooking and its street food. You can just go into quite ordinary-looking restaurants, the so-called fly restaurants, and have a delicious meal. When I went there, I had the best Chinese food of my life, in a non-descript little place next to a bus station.
Dinda: What do you think is one of the main things Westerners, in particular, don’t know about Sichuanese cuisine?
Fuchsia: I think one of the ironies is that while Sichuanese cuisine is well-known and has become popular internationally, people are often taken in by this stereotype that it is just about the great drama of loads of chilies and Sichuan peppers in great pools of oil.
All these dramatic dishes are great fun, but Sichuanese food is much more subtle than that. The real heart and soul of Sichuanese cooking lies in the flavoring. The great thing about it is not that it smacks you about the head with spice, but that it is an exciting journey. In any part of China, a well-planned menu has a lovely variety of flavors, and in Sichuan, you have these dramatic highs and gentle lows, so it is very stimulating. I would say that sophistication and flavoring variety is something that people often miss out on.
Dinda: We now transition to the Sichuan Culinary Institute, for a conversation with Teacher Zheng Wei and Teacher Li.
Teacher Zheng Wei: I’m here on the second floor of the Institute and they are in the middle of a mapo tofu cooking demonstration!
Dinda: What is the most important part of making mapo tofu?
Teacher Zheng: The most important step is getting all the ingredients ready. We are using soft tofu here. The Sichuan pepper needs to be added last to preserve the flavor. If you add it too early it will evaporate. Be careful not to add too much salt.
Dinda: What is the hardest thing about Sichuanese cooking?
Teacher Li: There are several aspects to Sichuanese cooking. The making and the balancing of the flavors is the most difficult thing. Heat control is another important aspect. You need to adjust the heat to the ingredients to bring out the best result in taste, texture, and mouthfeel.
A Taste of China Episode 5: Chili, Spice and All Things Sichuan (March 9th, 2021)
Chef and Author
“China has a culinary culture that is one of the treasures of human civilization…the food is delicious!”
A chef and award-winning author from England, Fuchsia Dunlop became an expert in Sichuanese food after living in Chengdu and becoming the first foreigner to graduate from the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. The Cambridge graduate has written for publications including The Financial Times and The New Yorker and has published a number of books about her specialization in Chinese cuisine.
Fuchsia also makes regular appearances on TV and radio and was named “Food Journalist of the Year” in 2006 by the British Guild of Food Writers. A die-hard foodie, Fuchsia has your taste buds in mind every step of the way, encouraging the expansion of palettes and challenging the scope of traditional cooking.
Jing Gao, the founder and CEO of Fly By Jing, is a chef, entrepreneur and a renowned expert on Chinese cuisine.
She Jing was born in Chengdu, but grew up primarily in the West, before returning to China again as an adult to find her inspiration rooted in her native cuisine. She uses her experience as a trained chef to share meaningful flavors and hopes they will open people up to new ideas and conversations on Chinese cuisine. Prior to founding Fly By Jing, she was the founder of an award-winning modern-Chinese fast dining restaurant in Shanghai, and her culinary prowess has been featured in The New York Times, BBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Fortune, and more
- Dorinda ElliottDirector of Programs and Center for Business at the China Institute
Dorinda Elliott is the SVP, Director of Programs and Center for Business at the China Institute. Before joining China Institute, Elliott worked as editorial and communications director at the Paulson Institute, which promotes U.S.-China relations and sustainable growth in both countries.
Elliott worked as a journalist for some 30 years, with a deep background in China. She wrote for the BusinessWeek magazine, then served as Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. Elliott later lived in Hong Kong for a decade, traveling and reporting across China. Elliott was Newsweek Bureau Chief in Beijing, Moscow, and Hong Kong, then Asia Editor. As Editor-in-Chief of Asiaweek from 2000-2001, she relaunched the magazine with a new focus on China and business. Elliott was later an Assistant Managing Editor at Time magazine, then Global Affairs Editor at Condé Nast Traveler, where she wrote about China, global issues, and corporate social responsibility. Elliott graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in East Asian Studies.
- Mei ZhangFounder and CEO of WildChina
Mei Zhang is the founder and CEO of WildChina. Under her leadership, WildChina flourished from a small Hutong operation into an award-winning business. Mei’s own expertise has led her to win a number of personal awards, including Travel and Leisure’s A-List of Top Travel Advisors, Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist, and Wendy Perrin’s #WOW List of Travel Experts. Mei is an Aspen Institute China Fellow and currently serves as a member of Harvard Business School’s Alumni Board.