I wipe my knuckle under my nose once again, and all of my companions follow suit. The universal signal of Sichuan it is, repeated countless times each day. Sichuanese do so as a matter of course, an act so instinctual it barely registers even on the subconscious. But I am acutely conscious of the constant prickling in my nose, the drip that keeps forming on its tip, the cough and splutter with yet another mouthful of food, the sweat that forms readily on my brows … Make no mistake: I have eaten hot food plenty of times before, even priding myself on the ability to handle a spicy dish. But this is a whole new dimension to eating.
I am in Sichuan for the first time, having arrived by long-haul train from Beijing. My first discovery is that three main types of dishes are offered here: very hot, extremely hot, and infernal. If they want to show mercy to a foreigner, they offer you a very hot plate, but if you have the temerity to say you are used to spicy food, they gleefully produce a range of dishes that burn their way through from one circular muscle in the body to the other. As I sweat my way through another meal, my host tells me that the signature chilli used in nearly all Sichuan cooking is not a native plant. Or rather, it may be so now, after 500 years, but it was introduced from Central America. When the Spanish set up their trans-Pacific routes – running from the west coast of the Americas through the Philippines to the east coast of Asia – they brought with them two main items of cargo. One was precious metals, gold and silver for the imperial coffers. The other was the small plant with its fiery red fruit – chilli peppers. It would not be the first time that staple local food actually had a foreign origin, but the Sichuanese have incorporated the humble chilli – combined with garlic and the distinctive Sichuan pepper – into a cuisine that is the envy of most.
Yet, for some reason that is beyond me, the food sits well on my stomach. How to make sense of this apparent contradiction between the burning feeling in my mouth and the calmness of my guts? After another glorious meal, I ponder two possibilities. First, the multiple uses of chilli ensure that any bugs you may have lurking in your nether regions are burned away. The food cleans as well as satisfies. Second, I find that I know clearly when I have had sufficient food, since the sucrose and fat found in so many dishes elsewhere in the world is simply not present here. Fat may make the food taste good (for tongues that have grown up with it), but sucrose is the real culprit. It masks the body’s satiety indicators, so that you keep on eating until overloaded. Not in Sichuan, where one’s body recovers its old mechanisms for determining what is enough.
But Sichuan has more, much more to offer than its food. Its distinct identity is not merely defined by its suspicion of the northerners, with their political power and industrial might. Nor is it defined by dialect, or physical characteristics. Or rather, its identity is made up of these factors, but the sum is greater than the parts. They are indeed suspicious of northerners and that suspicion has a long history indeed. It may have been the Tang Dynasty, based in Xian, or the Song dynasties of Kaifeng and Luoyang, or the Ming and then Qing Dynasties of Nanjing and Beijing. Thousands of years of northern dynasties, seeking to hold their away over those in the south-west. By the time the communists came to power, this tradition was well and truly established. Chairman Mao’s decision to make Beijing their capital – a relative newcomer on the scene of possible capitals – ensured the tradition of suspicion continued. And this despite the fact that Mao himself was also from the south, from Hunan province (although that too is north of Sichuan).
The people here have their own proud history. Even though they are very much part of China and have been for millennia, they like to tell of the times when Sichuan had its own power base. ‘Power base’ is perhaps too strong, but in the dim and very distant past it was not under distant imperial sway. For example, in the city of Chengdu is the Jinsha archaeological site. The Shu people had relocated their political centre from Sanxingdui (2050-1250 BCE), forty kilometres to the north, to Jinsha, where they settled down for more than half a millennium – 1200-650 BCE. The site itself was discovered by accident in 2001 during some reconstruction work, and the site has since become a distinct and well-preserved location, trying to present a glimpse of what life was like. Remains of ivory, jade and gold are plentiful, as are stone and bronze implements. Clearly, both technologies existed side by side. But I was most intrigued by learning that elephants and lions and deer were plentiful, in a lush plateau teaming with plant and animal life.
But as I tour the site, what strikes me is the way the uniqueness of the ancient Shu culture is highlighted. They lived in the Chengdu basin, a plateau ringed by mountain ranges. As far back as Chinese culture is known, the Shu had developed a unique cultural presence for almost two millennia. They did so largely isolated from the rest of China, which began to note their presence – through a mix of fabulous stories, legends and miscellanea passed down from one writer to the other – only in the fourth century BCE. This was probably due to the first official contact between the Qin and Shu states in 476 BCE, when the latter sent emissaries with gifts to the Qin court.
With such a long history of independent existence and subsequent domination by one emperor after another, it is no wonder the people of Sichuan value their distinctness. The land itself certainly helps. In order to get there, I travelled by train, journeying westward from Wuhan and passing through Chongqing. From the vast river flats of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), we burrowed through tunnels and crawled over mountains passes, following the river upstream. ‘Upstream’ is really a euphemism, for in order to pass from the basin to the river flats, the Chang Jiang has to tumble through the precipitous Yangzi Gorges. We rolled over bridges beneath which were narrow valleys with towns and the ever-present rice paddies. To me it seemed as though the ranges were impossibly steep and perilous. But to the north and south are even greater ranges, the Qinling and the peaks of Yunnan respectively. Yet even these are nothing compared to the Hengduan Mountain system in the west half of the province. Range towers above range, with peaks reaching above 7,000 metres. Only through these formidable mountains can one reach Tibet.
Surrounded by such a natural fortress, it is no wonder Sichuan was able to maintain its distinct traditions for so long, as also for endless independence movements when the faraway empires waned in power. So also has the local dialect has been able to flower, and the people with their lithe physiques.
Bodies and Feel
Physique is hardly the word, unless one wants to speak of wiry and petite frames (with their gender associations). I am interested in the barely perceptible signals of how people are with their bodies – how a shoulder may move, a chin, the hips on walking. The women carry their bodies in a way that is both restrained and relaxed. Minimal may be the best word: minimal in terms of clothing, makeup (usually none), and body parts needed to walk. That is, a Sichuan woman manages to walk without apparent effort, using the fewest parts of her body to do so. Is it laziness or perhaps avoidance of physical exertion? No. It signals a deep comfort with their bodies.
The men too tend to be diminutive, as is more common in the southern parts of China. But they have an almost indescribably nonchalance that is captured in the slight nod and shrug at a comment or observation. This is all that is required for acknowledgement. Or, if you need correction, they do so quickly and easily. They walk and stand with a knowing nonchalance, that is perhaps best captured in the old saying, ‘You’d better not go to Sichuan; it wouldn’t help your career’. Often this is understood to refer to the many opportunities to unwind, to the distractions posed by members of the opposite (or same) sex. If you want to be a workaholic, to make your way in the world, then Sichuan is not the place to go. But I suggest it may be read in another way. Sichuanese know that too many other things in life are important – the passions, acts, and pursuits that make us human.
Such as food – to which I cannot help returning. In the end real feel of Sichuan is its food. Chinese may be among the only people that travel according to their stomachs. Before I departed from Beijing, many people asked me, ‘Are you going to Sichuan for the food’ – as if that was the major reason for going at all. I may not have set out with my stomach in mind, but it certainly turned out to be the key experience.
Each day, my host takes me from one of his regular, everyday eateries to another. ‘I want to show you a little of everyday life here’, he says. One place serves only three dishes, each one a variation on rice noodles in soup and pickled cabbage. For dinner it was mapo doufu, with its signature combination of ‘heat’ and ‘numbing’ spiciness. ‘We don’t say the food tastes spicy’, he says, ‘we say if feels “tingly-numbing”’. Upon my request, he writes down the character: 麻 or má. He tells me of the way this doufu is made, with salty broad bean paste, fermented black beans, chilli oil, Sichuan peppers, garlic, green onions, rice wine and the secret ingredient, chilli flakes of the heaven-facing pepper (朝天辣椒). Another is an impossibly fiery and pungent hotpot, into which we dump meatballs, strips of vegetables, noodles, and all manner of things, only to retrieve them a few minutes later when cooked and spiced. The endlessly flowing beer is merely to keep one’s throat a little cool. Yet not all is spicy. On an afternoon, we stop by a well-known roadside stall to buy a cool drink. Or rather, it is more like an iced jelly, made from a local plant and with nuts and herbs and whatnot sprinkled on top. Each of them is a sensation, each of them a feeling of what is really important in the day.