2000s Archive

China Bold

Originally Published April 2003
After a decades-long decline, Chengdu’s once-legendary restaurants are serving some of the finest, most inventive food in the nation.

Xiao Jianming is a whirlwind of disciplined energy at the wok. With fast, precise movements, the head chef of the acclaimed Piaoxiang (“Drifting Fragrance”) restaurant, in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, stir-fries pork ribs with dried Facing Heaven chiles and Sichuan pepper, turning them out onto a serving platter in a lustrous, dark red tumble. Moving with the agile grace of a teenager, he bathes slices of beef in gently heated oil, then tosses them in a wok with fresh shiitake mushrooms; crisp, raw cucumber; and scarlet pickled chile. The only Sichuanese establishment in the province to have received the local equivalent of a Michelin star, Piaoxiang, with its opulent, marble-floored banqueting chambers, mah-jongg rooms, and cigar bar, is peopled with the region’s most discerning diners.

Two miles away, in a peculiar old house once inhabited by a Guomindang general, another high-profile chef is flexing his culinary muscles. In a grand room overlooking the Jin River, Yu Bo, the enfant terrible of Sichuanese cuisine, has just sent out the first course of an elaborate banquet. The guests gathered around the huge table gasp with delight at the stunning checkerboard of square plates cradling no fewer than 24 cold meatless dishes. There are bright, crisp lobes of daylily bulb with celery; crunchy deep-fried peas in a scarlet, fish-fragrant sauce; silky shiitake mushrooms infused with the taste of green onions; and pinwheels of bean curd layered with purple seaweed. Gelatinous spears of aloe vera are arranged like the petals of a flower; coral-pink pickled ginger sits under turnip cut into perfect diamonds; and slivers of lettuce stem are tied into tiny knots. “Anyone can make a delicacy out of lobster or abalone,” says the 37-year-old maverick. “But I like to show that it can be done with the simplest ingredients.”

Lying at the heart of the fertile Sichuan Basin, Chengdu is one of China’s most famous centers of gastronomy. And Sichuanese cuisine, known throughout the world for its spiciness, is legendary within the country for its diversity of tastes. “Each dish has its own style,” goes a saying, “and a hundred different dishes have a hundred different flavors.”

But like every other city in this fascinating nation, Chengdu has had a bumpy past. Though its restaurants flourished in the early years of the 20th century, they were hit hard by four tumultuous decades of revolutionary politics—nationalization in the 1950s, which crippled staff motivation; food shortages and famine in the ’60s; and the Cultural Revolution of the ’70s, which saw the blacklisting of dishes and restaurants deemed feudal or bourgeois. By the 1980s, Chengdu’s once-famous eating establishments were well past their prime, and the city itself had devolved into a sleepy provincial backwater.

A few years later, with the dawn of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the ancient Chinese obsession with food began to reassert itself, and the nation’s restaurant industry started slowly twitching back to life. Sichuanese cooking, however, remained stuck in the doldrums. At the time, says Wang Xudong, editor of Sichuan Cuisine magazine, “Cantonese food was prestigious all over China. It had the cachet of association with the wealth of Hong Kong, and it was seriously expensive because it relied on fresh seafood flown in from the coast.” Sichuanese food, on the other hand, was thought of as “cheap, rustic, and old-fashioned—not something you’d offer to guests you wanted to impress.”

The establishment in the late ’90s of Xiao Jianming’s Piaoxiang and similar places was part of a calculated effort by local restaurateurs and food enthusiasts to revamp that image. “We wanted to show people the excellence of our traditional flavors,” says Xiao, “and to serve the food in an upmarket environment, with thoroughly modern service and décor.”

The strategy paid off. Today, Chengdu has an astonishingly vibrant dining scene, with more than 30,000 restaurants in the city and its suburbs (an area that’s home to some 10 million people). Partial privatization has breathed new life into a few of the famous old places, and electrifying competition has galvanized the city’s designers and chefs, who are falling over themselves to redefine the cutting edge.

Like most chinese of his generation, Xiao Jianming had no choice when it came to a career. In the topsy-turvy world of the Cultural Revolution, a disadvantaged family background gave him a privileged position that enabled him to avoid the fate of many of his contemporaries, who were forced to labor in the countryside for years. After middle school, he was assigned to a prestigious traineeship in a famous Chengdu restaurant, the Rong Le Yuan (known back then as the Red Flag Canteen). Young, keen, and extremely ambitious, Xiao performed brilliantly, and in 1978 he was dispatched to Beijing’s Sichuan Restaurant, where he worked under the legendary master Chen Songru and delighted such influential guests as Deng Xiaoping, François Mitterrand, and Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk.

But by the early 1990s, when Deng’s economic reforms were unleashing a capitalist revolution, the appeal of working for the government had begun to wane. “My wages were fixed and very low,” says the 47-year-old chef. “And the atmosphere was stifling. There was just no scope for being creative as an individual.” And so, he continues, breaking into one of the lively smiles that punctuate his conversation, he decided to “plunge into the sea” of the market economy. In 1997, he and a friend opened Piaoxiang.

The restaurant’s renditions of such well-known folk dishes as Pockmarked Mother Chen’s bean curd and Gong Bao chicken are impeccable, but Piaoxiang is better known for its traditional banquet delicacies (“cabbage hearts in boiling water,” for example, a soup whose simple name belies its fine taste and minimalist beauty) and dishes featuring extravagant ingredients like shark’s fin and abalone. The chef’s own tastes, however, are more modest. Ask him his favorite Sichuanese dish, and he responds without hesitation. “I’d have to say it’s twice-cooked pork.”

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