I recently had the chance to interview Robyn Eckhardt, the blogger behind the mouthwatering Eating Asia and an authority on Sichuan food!
Robyn Eckhardt moved to Chengdu in 1984, and once she started sampling the local cuisine, she was a goner. A culinary love affair that has stood the test of time, Eckhardt has repeatedly returned to the region, usually with her food photographer husband Dave Hagerman in tow, to immerse herself in the famous spicy flavours. Now based in Malaysia, she writes the award-winning blog Eating Asia – accompanied by Hagerman’s beautifully pictures – and has espoused the wonders of Sichuan and other Asian cuisines on the pages of New York Times, Saveur, Food & Wine, Wall Street Journal Asia and South China Morning Post.
How did your move to China in 1984 spark this interest in all things spicy and Asian?
Chengdu was a culinary watershed for me. I grew up with a typically (for the 1960s/70s) American Midwestern, somewhat tame palate. Oily chili-laden food was new to me, as were ingredients like tofu, fatty pork and huajiao [Sichuan peppercorn], and dishes such as stir-fried leafy greens. But for some reason I took to it all immediately; other than sea slug, I can’t remember encountering anything I didn’t like.
And though I was in the middle of nowhere – compared to, say, Beijing or Shanghai — it was actually a lucky thing that I ended up in Chengdu, because Sichuan was one of the first provinces to liberalize agriculture under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. So we had a bountiful free farmer’s market (rather than just state-owned produce shops) with a huge variety of really gorgeous produce steps from the university gate. And Sichuan’s semi-tropical climate meant that while folks in Beijing were eating cabbage we were feasting on beautiful beefeater-type tomatoes, sweet corn, peas and doumiao, rabe, blood-red carrots and all sorts of other lovely veggies.
By the time I returned to the US, the way I cooked and ate had been completely transformed. For the better, I think. And after almost 10 years living in southeast Asia, and loving the food here, Sichuanese remains my favorite Asian cuisine.
What are the biggest changes to Chengdu’s food scene since you first lived there?
No more ration tickets for pork and wheat products! And even at the most humble fly restaurants dishes have much more meat in them now than back then. In 1984 an order of huanggua rousi might have at most 100grams of pork in it, sliced paper thin to make it go further. Suan la tang would consist of mostly shredded chili-pickled cabbage with just a few shavings of meat. Not that that was a bad thing, I never missed meat.
People seem to eat much less rice now, at least when they’re eating out. At the one ‘restaurant’ out the back gate of Chuan Da where we ate every night you ordered rice by the jin, usually 2 or 3 in one sitting. And then you’d just have a few very protein-light dishes to go with it.
There’s less street food now – a sad consequence of urbanization, redevelopment, and efforts on the part of the municipal government to make Chengdu a ‘wenming’ city.
Chengdu was named the first ‘City of Gastronomy’ in Asia by UNESCO. What is it about this city and its food culture that makes it stand-out in a region of such amazing cuisines?
Well I’m biased because I think Chengdu is one of the greatest places in the world to eat. It comes down to Chengdu ren themselves. I think of them as the “Italians of China” in that, much like Italians, Chengdu ren really know how to live – they place a priority on enjoying themselves. You see and feel it all over the city – folks idling in tea gardens, playing mahjong and cards, hanging out in parks and eating with obvious relish. Any population that places a priority on good living is going to value food, and that in turn is likely to make for an intricate, wonderful cuisine AND for efforts to preserve that cuisine.
You gravitate toward street food and fly restaurants when travelling through Chengdu. What draws you to this type of cooking?
I’m not into overwrought presentations, culinary wizardry, or molecular gastronomy. The sort of dishes I’m attracted to are real and honest and showcase the flavours of their ingredients. This is what you often find in street food, I think (and fly restaurant food).
And there is something so wonderful about the proximity to the cook or vendor that street food/fly restaurants afford – in the West (maybe Asia too now) people will pay huge amounts of extra money to sit at a ‘chef’s table’ in the kitchen of a fine restaurant. At my favorite fly restaurant in Chengdu, I can wander back to where the cook is preparing my order and watch and ask questions as he does it, all as a matter of course.
I also like the “community” that street food/fly restaurants create. When you’re sitting at a table in a proper restaurant you’re much less likely (not likely at all, if it is very upscale) to strike up a conversation with your neighbours. Not so when you’re sitting at a street stall or a fly restaurant table. I like interacting with people about food – what better place to do so than where people are enjoying what they’re eating?
In the same vein, it seems like every trip you have back to Chengdu you stumble across another great hole-in-the-wall restaurant. How do you find these places?
Dave and I do a lot of walking – taxis and buses are your enemy if you’re looking to sniff out hidden-in-plain-sight treasures. (And if you’re with a photographer you’ll be forced to walk a lot anyway!) And for a Chinese city Chengdu is incredibly walk-able.
I look for queues – that’s how I found a wonderful old bakery near Wenshu Monastery that makes these fantastichuajiao-enhanced bar cookie-ish nut sweets. It’s been around for ages and everyone in Chengdu seems to know it, but it’s one of those places a local might not think to tell you about if you asked “What are some places in Chengdu I shouldn’t miss?”
Wherever I am in the world I am constantly window shopping – but for food. If it looks interesting, or if I’ve never seen it before, or if I stick my nose in the door and the place smells good, I’ll try it. So much the better if the vendor or resto owner is friendly and obviously proud of what they do. It’s hit and miss but the misses are generally only about 5 per cent.
And when it comes to finding food I’m neither shy nor afraid of making a fool of myself. Even with language barriers, there’s always a way to communicate if you really want to. I’m quite willing to pantomime or speak the local language terribly.
It seems like you always manage to talk your way into the kitchens of your favourite restaurants and discover all their secret ingredients and special techniques. What’s your secret?
I have a real interest in and an intense passion for food and culinary traditions, and a tremendous respect for people who cook well. And I think that most cooks who are proud of what they do respond to that. If I say, “This is fantastic. can you tell me how you cook it? Can I come back and watch you make it?” the response is often positive. If I can see a hint of willingness I may push a little. Or I will return to the place again and again, let the vendor or cook get used to my presence. Perseverance is a culinary researcher’s best friend.
It helps sometimes, I think, that I’m usually with a photographer who, frankly, packs some serious equipment. There’s something about that that probably makes me seem more serious myself, more truly interested in learning and documenting.
But it doesn’t always work. I’ve had plenty of street food vendors or eatery proprietors say no or tell me to go away. And I do. Why waste time trying to talk someone into doing something they really don’t want to do? The result will suffer, and it inevitably turns out being a waste of my time as well as theirs. I’ll just go on to the next dish, the next hawker stall, the next restaurant. There is always something around the corner.
When you’re heading back to Chengdu, what are your can’t-miss dishes? Restaurants? Food streets?
Mapo doufu of course. I think the “original” branch of Chen’s near Du Fu cottage does a nice version but I love trying it everywhere because every cook has their own twist.
Hongyou shuijiao [red oil boiled fish] and daoshao mian [knife cut noodles] – for the former I really like the dandan Mian restaurant kitty corner to the Sheraton Lido (if it’s still there). Their dandan mian are tasty and spicy enough for me (unusual, I’m a complete chili freak) and their freshly baked guotie stuffed with your choice of meats/veg (the roast pork with ‘gravy’ is incredible) are fabulous.
Nearby, behind the Sheraton, is a great wet market and I like to go there and graze the liangban shemma shemma (cold salady/pickle-y dishes) stall. She has something like 20 kinds.
I LOVE zhu erg en (which I know is called different things in other parts of China, but it’s known as fish mint in English) prepared liangban with just black vinegar and lajiao and sugar. Anything with la rou, I can’t get enough of the stuff. Simple dishes like la rou stir-fried with corn and edamame or la rou stir-fried with suan miao.
I really could go on for pages. And I could eat in Chengdu for weeks on end and not get tired of it. Did I mention the tian shui mian at the little xiao chi stall near the monastery entrance?
What was the most memorable meal you’ve had in Chengdu?
In 1985 my parents came to visit Dave and I in Chengdu. Dave and I took them to our regular place out Chuan Da’s back gate, four tables and one wok in a shed, very basic to say the least. Huanggua rousi, yuxiang qiezi, fanqie rousi, chao youcai, and suanla tang. And lots of rice and beer, which we drank warm out of bowls, as was done back then. My folks loved everything and the cook was so proud. It was just a fantastic evening with great food in a little place and time that doesn’t really exist anymore (although you can still find the great food).