2000s Archive

China Bold

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This fabled preparation of boiled pork slices tossed in the wok with fragrant vegetables and spicy, beany seasonings is one of Sichuan’s best-loved folk dishes. And as Xiao Jianming and his staff sit down for lunch after a hard morning in the kitchen, it is at the center of their table.

Yu Bo’s meatless, impossibly artful starters make it clear that his will be no conventional banquet. On their heels come languid, honey-brown strips of braised catfish served in a sleek, black-lacquer case adorned with silver; dark, wild ko mo mushrooms laid out on an oblong green-glass platter with a radiating spray of tender bamboo shoots, tiny asparagus spears, and “petals” made from the insides of tomato skins; and individual china pots whose paper seals conceal sumptuous thick soups yellow with the yolks of salted duck eggs and floating with morsels of camel’s foot, ham, chicken, and fish. In between, dainty snacks—single water lily petals deep-fried into mouthfuls of crispness; tiny steamed buns in the shape of hedgehogs, their quills (snipped out of the raw dough with nail scissors) so fine they’re sharp against your lips—elicit more sighs of pleasure.

A slightly awkward and not terribly articulate man, Yu Bo was born into a well-to-do family of workers (the elite class in the radical Maoist years) but is the first to admit that he’s what the Chinese call “a man without culture.” Having failed a critical exam at the age of 16, he was forced to work in a factory canteen, where he spent five grueling years. In 1985, he managed to get a job as a casual laborer in Shufeng Yuan, one of Sichuan’s most well-respected restaurants, and there, through hard work and sheer persistence, he eventually won recognition as a chef. In 1993, Yu was awarded gold and silver medals at a culinary contest in Beijing.

His two-year-old restaurant, Yu’s Family Kitchen, was tiny by local standards until he relocated it four months ago to the Tianshi Hotel. “I don’t want the hassle of a big business,” says the chef, whose wife, Dai Shuang, acts as manager. And though he’s determined not to let his menus be “dictated by commercial considerations,” Yu admits that he is beginning to make more of an effort to accommodate his diners. Other chefs have always told him his cooking is “beautiful but impractical,” Yu says, and advised him to tailor it to the market.

Not that anyone would accuse him of bowing to convention. What truly sets the chef apart, says local food writer Xiang Dong, is his highly esoteric approach. “He has a ceaseless appetite for study,” says Xiang, “and he wants to make each of his dishes into a work of art.” While many fault Yu for being “too extreme,” says Xiang, “he doesn’t care whether his food is popular or not. He is motivated purely by aesthetic ideals.”

Radical though the results often are, Yu’s ideals are actually rooted in tradition. “I find it tragic that the Japanese have more respect for traditional Chinese culture than we do,” says the chef, who is known to pore over cookbooks and pester members of the older generation for their culinary secrets.

He also looks to Japanese cooks for inspiration. “We’re at least fifty years behind them in our culinary development,” he says. “Their style of presentation is much more sophisticated, and they’re way ahead in their use of environmentally sound, unpolluted ingredients.”

The chef serves even the most traditional delicacies with a twist—slices of his tea-smoked duck, all bronzed skin and silky, aromatic flesh, arrive suspended by red thread from a bamboo frame—and yet when you ask him to name his favorite dish, he, too, finds comfort in convention. “Twice-cooked pork,” he says with a grin. “Other dishes pale over time, but that you can eat a hundred times and never tire of it.”

Given the newly elevated status of Sichuanese cuisine, it is perhaps not surprising that its biggest fans—from chefs to farmers to politicians—are now hankering after the warm, hearty flavors at its core. These days it’s increasingly common for urban nouveaux riches (and chefs looking to get a leg up on the competition) to drive out of town for a taste of humble peasant fare. Most of them end up at the Turtle Restaurant.

Located on a busy road in Shuangliu County, on the outskirts of Chengdu, the unassuming Turtle is the domain of Liu Shaokun, who named it after a dish invented by his mother. “We were a poor family with seven children,” says the small, lively 47-year-old, “and could afford to eat very little meat. One day my father caught a turtle, and since there wasn’t enough of it to feed us all, she braised it with potatoes and homemade chile paste to make it go further.”

The dish, a sublime marriage of rich, meltingly tender turtle and the gentle comfort of potatoes, has become a Chengdu legend. “Lots of other restaurants try to imitate it,” says Liu with a satisfied grin. “But no one else can do it quite like this.”

When he entered the restaurant business (in his thirties, after a fruitless career in the state bureaucracy), Liu was determined to serve the traditional dishes he’d eaten as a child at home. “I think when people succeed in their careers, they become nostalgic for the flavors of their childhoods,” he says. “And as living standards rise, people crave an authentic, rustic style of food.”

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