You can smell the Chengdu Spice Market from way down the street as you pass the Wukuaishi Bus Station, thronging with tiny Sichuanese farmers from out in the country come to Chengdu to look for work – baskets filled with belongings on their backs, or rucksacks made from worn denim, wearing the farmer’s uniform of a worn brown suit jacket, rolled up navy blue suit trousers and rubber-soled khaki gym shoes.
Traffic is mayhem at this spot as bus passengers with bags and boxes weave in and out between vehicles and buses, taxis cut in on one another to vie for passengers, and three-wheeled modi taxis crowd the pavement, calling for fares. There are a lot of horns honking and raised voices, and between all this street vendors have carved out their own slice of pavement and are selling roast sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and spicy cold noodles in cardboard tubs. It’s complete chaos.
Then suddenly the astringent smell of Sichuan pepper goes right into your nose and hits that spot reserved for wasabi or horseradish, clearing your head, and you keep walking.
It’s great to be back in Chengdu (and back on the road) after nearly two weeks of sitting still in Shanghai waiting for the campervan to be repaired. I’m not that great at sitting still, preferring to keep moving, keep doing, keep seeing new things, a trait that is exhausting at times for me and everyone else. For once I really needed some quiet downtime to recover from the previous couple of months of very rugged and challenging travel, and you know, eat some familiar foods. Wear clean clothes. Have coffee with friends. It was delightful.
We arrived in Chengdu feeling completely recharged and re-energized, and ready for new places, but before leaving town I wanted to visit the Spice Market where I’d heard Sichuan’s famed hua jiao pepper and chillies are bought and sold. It’s a massive place taking up a whole block, divided into sections for chillies, peppers, dried spices, dried mushrooms, dried seafood and fresh garlic and ginger.
It’s an Aladdin’s Cave for lovers of spice, and I spent hours there chatting with the vendors and wiping my streaming eyes.
The main hall of the market is a vast space stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of chillies – from Xinjiang (curled and crinkled), from Hebei (straight and dark) and from Henan (straight and plump). Each has a different taste and degree of heat, although if you really want to maximize the heat you can also purchase sacks of chili seeds (above).
The air is full of the acrid smell of dried chillies and it makes your eyes water and your nose run. I developed a tight cough, the kind you get when you fry chillies at home and the kitchen fills with the aerosolized chili vapour. The chili vendors (and their children) seemed completely immune to it though – playing cards, eating lunch and gossiping amongst the red-filled sacks.
The Sichuan pepper hall was next – hua jiao 花椒 (flower pepper) is the tiny outer husk of the seed of the prickly ash bush, and for those who’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, sichuan pepper is unique for its mala or numbing spiciness. Not numbing in the way eating raw chillies numbs your mouth, but truly numbing, in an anaesthetic sort of way.
Chew one sichuan pepper and you taste a pleasant, peppery, slighty citrus medicinal flavour. After a minute the tip of your tongue feels a little numb and there is a pleasant tingling on your lips. Eat two or three and the rest of your tongue and lips now feel quite numb. The effect is fleeting and not unpleasant.
Sichuan pepper is used with enthusiasm is Sichuan cooking for flavouring soups, hotpots, braises and more. Until I visited the market I was unaware that in addition to the red variety, Sichuan pepper also comes in a dark green variety (qing hua jiao 青花椒) with a slightly different tatse and more powerful numbing properties.
The dried spice hall was extraordinary, filled with intoxicating smells of star anise (above), cassia quills (below), bay leaves (used extensively in Chinese cooking – a surprise to me), turmeric, dried ginger and cloves. It’s the first and probably last time I will see someone purchase 10 kilograms of cloves at once! There were so many more I couldn’t begin to name, trying to guess their uses by their smell.
The last hall holds dried goods like mushrooms (forty varieties) and seafood – tiny translucent dried shrimp, flat tentacled squid bundled together like cards, silvery dried sardines.
最后一个大棚装满干货，像香菇（40个品种）和海鲜 – 微小的半透明虾干，像扑克牌一样捆绑在一起的扁平触手的鱿鱼，还有银色的干沙丁鱼。
The vendors of the spice market are its lifeblood, a hard-working, cheery bunch who toil seven days a week. Chengdu people are very friendly, but the vendors at the spice market are almost overwhelming in their enthusiastic friendliness, and it’s a place that sees few foreign visitors.
A group of chili vendors trailed me around the market, explaining to everyone who I was and where I was from. (Australia? Wow! Lives in Shanghai huh? Ooh. Interested in Chinese food? Of course!) I was delighted by their hospitality and good humour – I think my eyes streamed as much from laughter as from the chillies.
If you’re ever in Chengdu, yes, be sure to see the pandas, but don’t miss the Spice Market. It’s unforgettable.
香料市场的供应商是它的生机的来源，这群活泼的人努力工作，一周7天辛劳的工作。成都人都很友好，但香料市场的供应商在热情这个方面几乎是力压群雄，这里几乎很少看到外国游客。在市场里 A组的辣椒供应商一直跟着我，和每个人解释我是谁，从哪来。 （澳大利亚？哇哦！住在上海吧？嗯？哦。对中国菜感兴趣吗？当然！）我很高兴他们的热情和良好的幽默感 – 我觉得我笑出来的泪水和辣出来的泪水一样多。如果你要去成都，没错，一定要去看看大熊猫，但千万不要错过香料市场。这绝对是个令人难忘的地方。
Chengdu Spice Market 成都香料市场
2 East Saiyuntai No 1 Road, Chenghau District, Chengdu (about 500m from the Wukuaishi bus station)
Open seven days 8am-4.30pm