After weeks and weeks in the remote wilds of western China, riding camels, sleeping in yurts, trekking through bazaars and witnessing unusual sacrifices, we finally made it across Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province and city of spice.
It was a complete and utter shock as we tumbled frizzy-haired and wild-eyed out of the campervan and into a major centre of civilization, a place with clean sheets and freshly brewed coffee, without yak hair blankets or animals grazing outside the door of our room. And people spoke Chinese there! No surprise really, given that Chengdu is in China, but so are Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu – and yet we went for days at a time without meeting a single person who spoke anything but the local Uyghur or Tibetan language.
Chengdu is smack-bang in the middle of China, a fine city with parks and tree-lined streets where the entire population is obsessed with food and eating. I’d been preparing for our arrival by researching the best places to eat and snack, and the best districts for streetfood (a great place to start is Jenny Gao’s blog Jing Theory). The list was very long indeed, and very spicy. You can smell the zesty fragrance of Sichuan pepper as you walk the streets, where every second doorway is a snack stall or a tiny restaurant with their chili-drenched wares displayed outside on the pavement.
I decided we should just dive right into Chengdu’s civilised food culture and eat at Yu’s Family Kitchen, with a 34 course degustation menu from one of China’s most talked about chefs, Yu Bo.
Belying its humble name, Yu’s Family Kitchen is set in a restored mansion house in one of Chengdu’s most vibrant street quarters, the revitalised Alleys district.
The entire meal was a study in new and interesting flavours and contrasts of taste and texture. I have only a limited understanding of Sichuan food so I approached the meal purely on the basis of taste and appearance. Those more knowledgeable about the culture and history of food in Sichuan would no doubt find more layers of meaning and reference in the dishes, but fortunately for me the flavours and tastes were strong enough on their own to make this a memorable experience from start to finish.
After being ushered into our private dining room on the upper floor – a simply furnished library full of cookbooks – Yu Bo’s wife introduced the meal to us, patiently helping me with the Chinese for any dishes I didn’t understand.
To commence: sixteen cold vegetable appetisers. Cold dishes always start a Chinese meal, preparing the palate for the more complex tastes to come. These were spanking fresh and perfectly reflected the season, some served unadorned but cut into exquisite shapes, others with simple dressings.
From top, L to R: fresh beans with ginger and soy, smoked tofu, braised eggplant, bitter greens
Pickled baby ginger, quail eggs with quivering jellied whites, red and green peppers
Wood ear fungus with curls of burning chili, tiny perfect red tomatoes, steamed pumpkin, bamboo shoot
Cooling xi nan hua, xi hu gua, sweetened peanuts, spheres of foshou gua (alligator pear)
Then came the slow procession of the next eighteen courses, taken as slowly as we needed, with plenty of time to talk and watch the street life below from our private balcony.
Left: a tiny egg and truffle cake topped with a sliver of truffle and gold leaf. It looked beautiful but sadly the cake was dry and the truffle lacked punch. The night’s only minor disappointment.
Right: A single clove of hei suan – black garlic – slow-roasted in its skin, then smoked and cut open like a delicate lotus flower blooming. The garlic was soft and rich with the texture of chocolate fondant and a deep, sweet, smoky taste. I’m still thinking about this single small culinary feat.
Ginseng root, two slender pieces, crisp and dry with a taste like fresh-baked biscuit, and powdered sugar.
Yu Bo’s signature dish – calligraphy brushes made from crisp pastry filled inside with pork floss, dipped in a sweet tomato ink. Spectacular and clever.
The little details that add to the experience: every dish is served in a different vessel, beautiful fine porcelain, hand-painted. Had I remembered to take a photograph before leaping into this abalone on cubes of richly spicy mung bean jelly you would have seen the inside rather than the outside of the dish.
Hairy crab meat and roe in crab shell, encased in a fine sheet of soft pastry. Served with aged warm Shaoxing huang jiu – rice wine, flavoured with slivers of ginger, and with a traditional accompaniment of vinegar with fine grated ginger, and a cup of chrysanthemum tea.
Left: a single butterflied shrimp, crisp fried in a crunchy batter and topped with nutty, fiery green salsa.
Right: All I caught when this dish was announced was ‘yu’and ‘tang’ – fish soup. So I dipped into the rich milky broth expecting to find flakes of fish and instead found something I couldn’t initially identify. It tasted like fish, but had a much firmer texture and in one bite could have been squid. Hmmm. I quickly did a search on my phone dictionary and showed Yu Bo’s wife when she returned. She nodded, smiling, because it was in fact eyu 鳄鱼 crocodile, farmed in Guangdong province.
Smoked fish, pastry twists, and roasted chili dipping powder
Left: pumpkin puree with tapioca balls, smooth and warming
Right: Jiangxi bamboo shoot braised with sichuan pepper, the only very spicy dish of the evening
Served on a calligraphy brush stand and looking a little like a butcher’s shop at the market with cuts of meat hanging in the breeze, this was a dish of pink and tender tea-smoked duck slices with small steamed buns, scallions, and home-made hoisin sauce. Delightful and just too much to finish by course twenty eight.
A masterpiece of dumpling art – a hedgehog dumpling filled with red bean paste, two tiny black sesame seeds for eyes. And so began the dian xin or dimsum. Some sweet, some savoury, all six intended to lightly end the meal.
Zong shuijiao – two folded dumpling crescents with a light pork filling and a rich soybean sauce
Left: beef noodles with braised mushrooms
Right: taisui baicai – white cabbage in a light chicken broth
Left: sweetened, soft glutinous rice jelly rolled in peanut starch powder. The coating had a slight oily crunch as though the rice jelly had been flash deep-fried before being rolled in the powder. I don’t know how that would be possible but if anyone can achieve it, Yu Bo can.
Right: huajiao pingguo three globes of just-in-season apple, poached in a syrup scented with the light fire of green huajiao or sichuan pepper.
And the very final dish: a perfect white porcelain teacup decorated with two lucky goldfish and filled with ripe, luscious globes of pomegranate.
What a meal to remember, and so wonderful to see local, seasonal produce at its finest. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and experience this wonderful place for yourself.
Yu’s Family Kitchen 喻家厨房
43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Road, Chengdu
Open daily for dinner between 5pm and 9pm. Bookings essential.
0086 (028) 8669 1975
Cost for a set 30-34 course degustation menu depends on number of diners attending:
1-2 persons: 1000 yuan ($150) per person
6-7 persons: 600 yuan ($100) per person
8 persons: 300 yuan ($50) per person