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A Culinary Tour of China

For the Chinese, there are two great cuisines—Sichuan and Cantonese. Travelers know Cantonese, because it is the cuisine of Hong Kong, but the Sichuan province is still off most tourist maps. Chiles are to Sichuan cooking what salt is to the sea. Sichuan natives talk about peppers the way other people talk about sports teams. Their cuisine makes Mexican food seem bland, but the heat is layered and complex, the different kinds of hot spices mixed and remixed, toasted and fresh, soaked in different agents to create a range of intense pleasure and exquisite pain. The trademark Sichuan pepper is hua jiao, which is in fact not a pepper at all, but the dried fruit of the prickly ash plant. Amazingly potent, it makes your mouth numb, but it is a wonderful numbness. You can feel it setting about its anesthetic work as soon as you taste it, yet at the same time it seems to make your taste buds somehow more intensely awake. It's almost as if whatever you're eating has been stewed in cocaine. Strange at first, it becomes an object of longing.

We had lunch at My Humble House, a very unhumble restaurant in Chengdu in a park surrounded by bamboo groves and waterways. The style is upmarket modern Chinese, with giant scholars' chairs, a silk-draped four-poster bed on which you can loll, pools of carp, halogen lights, and tables scattered with silk rose petals. The food is Chinese fusion—incorporating the influence not of Western food, but of the multiple branches of Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine—so, for example, the traditional Cantonese shark's fin soup is made here with the addition of creamy pumpkin.

Sichuan is justly famous for its teahouses. Most Chengdu businessmen leave their offices in the afternoon and conduct business over tea. Women go to play mah-jongg, gossips to gossip, children to play. We went to Yi Yuan, the most beautiful teahouse in Chengdu, in a restored Ming garden with a dozen courtyards, reflecting pools, pavilions, walkways, gaming tables, great sculpted lake rocks, and bridges framed by pines. We sat at a table next to some Buddhist monks and drank perfumed tea.

On entering China Grand Plaza for dinner, I felt as Marco Polo must have at the gates of the Forbidden City. Here in what I had foolishly thought was the middle of nowhere was dazzling opulence. You walk through enormous doors into a vast lobby where a pianist is playing Chopin on a concert grand, and see porcelain and furniture that could easily be in one of the world's better museums. China Grand Plaza includes an art gallery, a spa with three gigantic heated pools and a bevy of gorgeous masseuses, two karaoke bars (one of which has a glass ceiling in which fish swim around), four restaurants, and hotel guest rooms. The feeling is of extravagant elegance, albeit with a touch of Goldfinger.

A member of the staff, in black with white apron and gloves, stands before each of the doors down a long, vaulted red-lacquer hallway. We were ushered into one of these private rooms, which make up the haute Sichuan restaurant; there is no communal space. Amid burnished Ch'ing candle stands and expressive Ming calligraphy, we were given fresh tea and glasses of bai jiu (Sichuan brandy), which burns like wildfire all the way down. We had "husband and wife" (spiced beef and pork lungs) and jellyfish with coriander, and then a light consommé of fresh worm-herb, which, famous for its health-giving qualities, sells on the open market for as much as $2,000 a pound; food and medicine are not clearly delineated in China. Floating in the broth was a poached soufflé of bean curd and chicken. Abalone came over bricks of crisped rice. Kung pao chicken was full of the freshest hua jiao. Halfway through dinner, a dancer came to our room to do a private "face-off." In this old Sichuan tradition, a sequence of brightly colored cloth masks is worn in layers. As the dance unfolds, the dancer pulls a hidden string and one mask after the next is revealed. After dinner, we were offered Cuban cigars and a bottle of 1988 Château Lafite Rothschild, but, choosing our indulgences, had massages instead.

Chengdu is the great unsung city of China. In addition to incomparable food, it has wonderful sights: a panda-breeding center, where you can see the animals up close, including the adorable new cubs; the Wenshu monastery, with its chanting monks and holy processions; and, a two-hour drive away, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand Buddha, carved into the Lingiun Hill rockface in the eighth century A.D. to subdue the violent confluence of two rivers. It is the largest Buddha in the world—its big toe is 28 feet long.

We went native that night: Sichuan hot pot. Hot pot restaurants abound in Chengdu, and a local friend led us to Huang Cheng Laoma, where there are two burners built into the middle of each table, allowing us to have one cauldron chockablock with chiles, and one with a mild broth of chicken and sea horse. We ordered some 20 trays of stuff to cook in them, including sirloin steak, chicken, alligator livers, bamboo pith, bamboo-pith fungus, Chinese spinach, sausage, freshwater and saltwater eels, five kinds of mushrooms, Sichuan ferns, fresh lotus root, and slivers of beef throat. Whatever we cooked in the spicy soup we dipped in sesame oil with onion; whatever we cooked in the mild one we doused in a salty herb sauce. After dinner, we went to another teahouse to see Sichuan opera—a cavalcade of face-off, puppetry, dance, dexterous clowns performing folktales, acrobatic stunts, magic tricks, and masked flame-blowers.

Beijing residents, prohibited from debating who would be the best Party leader, have instead turned their critical attention to a more pressing question: Who makes the best Peking duck? There are many details to consider. Is the preparation too refined or flashy?Is the skin too fatty or dry?Is it cooked over applewood or apricot?Is the sauce bean- or fruit-based? Should the skin be dipped in sugar?How should the duck be carved?We went duck-hunting seven times. Among the restaurants that cater in good part to Westerners, we liked Commune by the Great Wall and Made in China; among those more for the locals, we preferred Xiangmanlou. Commune by the Great Wall is a hotel composed of villas by leading contemporary architects. From each villa, you can climb up to the Wall and walk along a pleasantly unrestored section that is yours alone. We had the restaurant's traditional Peking menu, which includes fried shrimp balls, duck soup, braised cod, dumplings, and the duck.

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