Chengdu, the ancient gateway to the southern Silk Road, has long been a magnet for visitors who love food.
When I was making plans to visit Chengdu, my Western friends wanted to know if I was going to see pandas. (Yes.) My Chinese friends asked if I was planning to eat a local delicacy: rabbit head. (Uh ... maybe? But on Easter weekend?)
The most authentic rabbit head restaurant, according to various reports, is Old Mother from Shuangliu's Rabbit Head, located near Shuangliu Old Station. Locals say "old mother" was selling hotpot at her shop－originally located where the airport sits today－but in the back she often prepared rabbit head for her son, who apparently craved this dish with the homemade sauce he grew up eating. Her hotpot customers "went crazy for it when they got a taste", and the rest is history, or at least her story.
How popular is eating rabbit head here? Local farm production can't keep up with demand－rabbits are now being imported from France for breeding, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
I did in fact try rabbit's head while strolling along Jinli Street, also known as Chengdu's snack street. You might guess that eating these is a tricky business, requiring the patience and perseverance one needs to eat crabs or lobster.
Cooking these egg-sized goodies is involved, too. First, rabbit heads should be blanched in hot water, then soaked in a mixture of salt, rice wine and ginger for 12 hours. Next comes stewing and then steeping with different flavorings depending on the cook: cinnamon, fennel and chilies are favorites. Finally, they are seasoned with sesame and chili powder and served.
Most delectable, Chinese standing around one vendor tells me, are the cheeks, the tongue and the brain. To get down to business, cracks open the jaw and tear the whole head into two halves. The cheeks were the easiest (to contemplate and to eat), and like the tongue these tidbits of meat are quite tasty. I fear I funked my tentative approach to the brain, but a young German girl traveling in our group pronounced the entire eating experience "excellent" and, you guessed it, "tastes like chicken".
Overall, a badge of courage is not really required to appreciate Sichuan food, which is much broader in scope than bunny brains or even the Sichuan peppercorn that now creeps into all kinds of Chinese cuisine. The hot pepper was actually unknown in the area until about 200 years ago, when the historically rather mild cuisine got a kick in the pants after chilies were introduced from South America and became an immediate hit.
The region has high humidity, and traditional Chinese medicine holds that peppers reduce internal dampness. Now spicy dishes－pungent, hot and salty－have become the norm, though more traditional dishes like crisp duck roasted with camphor tree leaves and tea, boiled pork with mashed garlic, dry-fried carp, minced chicken with hollyhock, and boiled Chinese cabbage are popular, too.
Chengdu, the ancient gateway to the southern Silk Road that took traders all the way to India, has long been a magnet for visitors who love food and traditional teahouse culture.
Sichuan's most famous hot stuff includes the spicy Pockmarked Bean Curd most famously served up by the restaurant Chen Mapo Tofu since 1862. Kung-pao chicken, another staple, has become a global favorite. Fast-food versions of this classic dish are so prevalent, in fact, that it's a surprise hit when you get a proper plate of the stuff in Chengdu, where it would be a scandal to serve up something mediocre.
Freshness rules in this agricultural breadbasket of China, and the succulent chunks of chicken, fresh rounds of green onion, sweet carrot cubes and those killer peppercorns come together in a mix of flavors as complex as a Bach fugue.
We enjoyed perhaps the best kung-pao chicken we've ever tasted at Shunxing Ancient Teahouse, where the lightly applied sauce was both pleasantly fiery and slightly sweet. The dish stood out in a stellar crowd, as our group of about a dozen eager diners enjoyed an armada of small plates on a big round dining table that seemed as wide as the sea. There was boiled fish in a chili sauce (shuizhu yu), boiled and stir-fried pork with salty and hot sauce (huiguo rou) and a fine version of mapo tofu－all were served with a little less firepower than usual since half of our group were children. There were also spicy noodles.
The array of dishes was a reminder of the flavorings and seasoning that come from all over the province: soy sauce from Zhongba, Baoning cooking vinegar from Langzhong, special vinegar from Sanhui, fermented soy beans from Tongchuan, hot pickled mustard tubers from Fuling, chili sauce from Chongqing, thick, broad-bean sauce from Pixian, and well salt from Zigong.
It was also a reminder of the laid-back lifestyle of the region: This was not a meal to be eaten quickly, but to savor with a few friends (and a few beers).
The teahouse and restaurant is a monument to taking it slow. You can enjoy a leisurely meal while watching a Sichuan Opera show, which includes the famous face-changing performance, and also stroll the art gallery with beautiful statuary, ceramics and artifacts such as rabbit snares that go back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and even earlier. A hallway lined with watercolors of local life scenes from the 1960s is particularly engaging.
The teahouse is housed in a modern building, but the intricate wood carvings, artwork, lighting and flooring all reflect traditional Sichuan teahouse design.