Doumiao (pea leaves) at a Chengdu wet market
As an Australian friend from our English teaching days reminded me recently, "We were lucky to land in Chengdu."
In the mid-eighties China there were certainly easier places to be a foreign student-turned teacher. Heat and hot water might have been nice. Sunshine would have been good. I often wished for a larger foreign community than 40 bodies. And I freely admit to wild cravings for just about any food that might be considered Western after my first three months.
But at that time -- and even now -- a 21-year-old budding foodie really couldn't have ended up in a better spot.
Sichuan's relatively mild and damp climate, cloudy skies, and the gray gauze of fog that often swathes its landscape make for sublime growing conditions. Despite near-freezing temperatures we were eating flavorful cucumbers, crimson carrots, glossy aubergines, tender pea greens (like those in the photo above), and thin-skinned sweet red peppers in winter. Spring came as early as the end of February in the form of sweet corn, peas, and juicy, beefeater-sized tomatoes. That year the province's bounty was brought home to us at the beginning of May, when on a trip to Beijing we found vegetable markets still stocked with little more than white cabbage, cauliflower, and leeks.
Chengdu's wet markets boast an amazing variety of fresh vegetables
If the fresh food situation in Chengdu was good then, it's simply astonishing now. Unlike China's more industrialized eastern and southeastern provinces Sichuan is still primarily rural. A couple of days ago we traveled two hours by high-speed train (oh my, how times have changed!) from Chengdu to Chongqing; most of our view was of bucolic countryside barely touched by rural industry, patch-worked fields of greens and other vegetables interspersed with trees dripping tangerines and blood oranges.
(Heavy pesticide and fertilizer use is, of course, a concern. In our day crops grown around the city were fed from hand-pulled 'honey wagons' that roamed Chengdu in the evenings, collecting the contents of 'honey pots', ie. chamber pots.)
Hong youcai -- red 'oil vegetable', a type of mustard
While urban centers like Shanghai have swept away traditional wet markets Chengdu, we were thrilled to find, still boasts many -- like this small market on Donghua Lu (north of the Science and Technology Museum) that appears to have been relocated from a nearby construction site.
Ten types of fresh mushrooms - a normal sight at Chengdu's wet markets
Here we found an unbelievable variety of vegetables, like the ten types of mushrooms sold from the stall above.
All markets have at least one stall selling seven or more types of bean curd products - fresh, dried, smoked
From my notebook:
Pea leaves; Chinese leeks; scallions; garlic shoots; napa cabbage; white cabbage; bok choy; baby bok choy; youcai (a type of flowering mustard); baby youcai; yellow youcai; chrysanthemum leaves; perilla leaves; pennywork; stem lettuce; romaine-like lettuce; 'A' vegetable; spinach; tatsoi; zhu er gen (a wonderfully tasty red and green leaf that's often sold attached to its root); Chinese broccoli; broccoli; cauliflower; celery; kohlrabi; daikon; red daikon; round radish, both white and red; lotus root; bamboo; young bamboo; three types of pickled bamboo; garlic and pickled garlic; sugar snap peas; snow peas; fresh peas, in the pod and shelled; fresh broad beans, large and small; sweet corn; red bell pepper; long red pepper; green bell pepper and long green pepper and 'curly' yellowish green pepper; mushrooms 10 kinds; orange winter squash; winter mellon; cucumber; red carrots; large and small taro; burdock; green beans ....
That's a partial list, by the way.
Add in various proteins, including a huge variety of bean curd products and vast quantities of pork, both fresh
A small pork section, by Chengdu wet market standards
Larou -- pork belly smoked over pine boughs and then air-dried (named for the twelth lunar month)
and you've got the foundations of an exceptional culinary culture. Once again, we feel pretty lucky to have landed in Sichuan.