Part VIII: The Flavor Capital of Asia

Chengdu, May 13th— Day for food. An outdoor market is a mile off. We march over. Posted in front is a man next to a wood-wheeled cart, cubbies apportioning the top, they filled with desiccated bulk mixtures. Teas, yes. Cooking spices, of a sort, yes. Rosebuds, citrus rinds, barks. The display is simple and practical like the man; a man in a collar, hair cut close.

Further on are products that would never find shelf-space in America, at least not displayed as they are here. Chickens, cleft and plucked, hang from metal hooks bolted to the eye-high transom of the stall, ribs outfacing and rouged from clotted blood. Another stall, another such display, this one a table of rabbit carcasses stripped of all pelt but for pom-poms of fur on the hind legs. 100-year-old-eggs, aging like culinary geodes inside shells of chaff beige clay, are piled into baskets. The age is a lie (who knew food would be as prone to this tendency as we are), yet there’s still an exceptional amount of time those eggs ripen till the albumen is translucent. Egg-timers for this purpose would be hilariously large: stored in tool sheds and not kitchen drawers. There’s a stall soundtracked by buzzing. Two men saw honeycomb into smaller bricks, yet this isn’t the sound source. That’d be the hum of bees, much reduced in numbers from your typical swarm.

A few people let me take photos. A man who owns an assortment of esoteric pickles, a dumpling maker. Most don’t though. I want a photo of the man making noodles in his building corner space. It is white. He is white. Severely pallid with flour; his eyes and lips the bright illuminations of his hidden body. He won’t let me take one.

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Bo Liu is our food guide. He looks like a comedian working the local circuit. He has square black glasses and very thin, pale forearms. “Welcome to the Flavor Capital of Asia,” he says.

We travel by tuk-tuk with special livery. Tuk-tuks—three-wheeled motorcycles where the driver is enclosed and there is a rear box for passengers—are rarer and rarer in Chengdu. Local government safety push. There’s a ban on them, though tourist tuk-tuks slipped through it. With government blessing, of course. Hence the special livery that makes it quite clear to all passerby’s, that this tuk-tuk shuttles tourists. If the livery does not make it clear, then the license plate does. It’s stamped with “tourist.”

For the better part of four hours, we sustain ourselves with platters of cooked bamboo, bowls filled with ambiguous spiced meats, boiling oil, and poached offal and vegetables. At stop-two, the tuk-tuk parallel parks next to an apartment building. We hop out and ascend a ladder that’s more of a plank due to the way it’s laid at so slight an incline from the sidewalk. Its other end goes through a glassless window on the ground floor of the building. Off the plank-edge is a living room. I land in it. I’m the first guest through and while waiting for Bo feel exposed as diners stall mid-bite to gawk at me. Bo comes in, by now accustomed to this sort of onboarding, and leads us through more dining rooms and a kitchen where wimpled dumplings are being folded and dumped into water. People are inside the building courtyard with dumplings on plastic plates. They sit among garden stones and on a low fence. Families are among them, and young people with satchels and books in them. Students. Dumplings come out by the platter. No one is going hungry.

A decade ago, this place served neighbors. It existed and proliferated as an ideal expression of community, one that restaurants aspire to but rarely accomplish. Restaurants are set up for the task of commerce. Think on it: zoned commercial space, wholesale appliances, licensing. This place started as food from a home. Neighbors to neighbors. Growth was gradual and, with dumplings as fine as the ones they serve, inevitable. They take money from it, sure. Love of dumplings (or people) isn’t per se why this place is here, sure. Yet it is a home. A guide-in-training who is with us says to me, “I ate here and saw tourists eating too. I wanted to learn the company that brought tourists to such special places. One could not find here unless he was brought. This is special company, I thought to myself.”

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