Chengdu bears little resemblance to its 1985 self. I certainly wouldn't know it from sight.
But I would know it -- I did know it -- from smell. As we walked in search of a taxi on our first evening a familiar scent began drifting from apartment block windows, restaurant kitchens, and outdoor cooking areas.
All over the city woks were being heated. When whisps of smoke rose from their glossy black surfaces they received glugs of this -- rapeseed oil (youcai) --
and then handfuls of this -- dried chilies.
As the fumes rose from those woks cooks muttered, as they always do, when dried chilies hitting a pool of hot oil raises fumes that make noses wrinkle and eyes water,
'Chiang bizi!' (呛 鼻子!)
'The nose is irritated!
But mine wasn't.
My nose was giddy. And my stomach was rumbling, just the way it did before-back-then, as I cycled home from class underneath windows of kitchens in which dried chilies sputtered in pools of rapeseed oil.
If you go to Chengdu, take a walk down an alley lined with mid-rise apartment houses just before lunch or dinner.
You'll know the essence of the city's food before you taste it.