We're terrible tourists -- famous sites are always last on our 'To Dos' list.
And this trip has been no different. But I am here in Chengdu at least partly for a travel story, so yesterday afternoon we buckled down, got out a city map, and headed for one of Chengdu's biggest tourist draws: Wenshu Monastery, home to a nicely preserved Buddhist temple, vegetarian restaurant, and tea garden.
I can't recall ever visiting Wenshu Yuan when we lived here in the eighties; in fact, I don't even know if it was active and/or open then. But yesterday, a Saturday, it was heaving with Chinese visitors offering incense, kow-towing before the deities, and enthusiastically rubbing various objects -- fu/luck characters, gongs, brass antlered lions -- in front of and around the temples in the hope of bringing fortune to themselves and their loved ones.
A google of 'Wenshu Chengdu' brings up more information than I can offer in this post, so I'll leave aside a detailed descritpion of the monastery and get right down to a highlight of our visit -- tian shui mian, literally 'sweet water noodles'.
Several square blocks around the monastery have been spiffed up into a bland-ified warren of lanes and alleys lined with new 'old' gray-bricked, tile-roofed buildings occupied by tea and tourist trinket shops. In a sort of open courtyard in the middle of the structures is a food court set with stalls offering a variety of traditional Chengdu snacks.
Normally I'd pass an area like this by without a second glance, but I was drawn to a picture window at the very edge of the Wenshu 'recreation district'. Behind it, a white-coated fuyuan ('attendant') worked in a white-tiled room behind an L-shaped counter laden with ceramic bowls filled with various noodles and jellies, all waiting to be dressed with an array of ingredients including: sesame oil, soy sauce, 'red' soy sauce (black soy seasoned with various dry spices), vinegar, bean sauce, spicy bean sauce, sesame seeds, lajiao (red chili oil), thinned sesame paste, ground Sichuan peppercorns, sugar, and MSG.
The whole scene -- the fuyuan's dress, the simple but hearty snacks, the queue of customers clutching tissue paper tickets purchased at a front counter, which they'd then hand to the fuyuan in exchange for a bowl of noodles or dumplings -- reminded me of a hole-in-the-wall behind Chengdu's massive Mao statue that, back in the day, we biked to for our bi-weekly fix of hongyou chaoshou (wonton in red chili oil sauce). The only thing missing was the unruly clutch of would-be diners hovering behind each occupied chair ready to tussle for the seat as soon as it was vacated.
I ordered tianshui mian -- thick, square-cut noodles in a sweet-and-spicy sauce -- and, for old time's sake, one liang of hongyou chaoshou (in many shops dumplings and noodles are still sold by weight; one liang yields approximately one heaping handful of noodles or eight to ten chaoshou).
The noodles -- something we never encountered in the eighties -- were served cool and, despite my insistence that I do 'chi la' (eat spicy), underdressed. No matter, for this was easily remedied with spoonfuls of lajiao from a dish at the edge of the noodle room's counter.
They're the thickest, most fantastically chewy noodle I've ever eaten -- a wheat pasta lover's dream, really -- with a ridged, jaggedy surface that grabs every bit of sugar, Sichuan peppercorn, and chili pepper in the thick, sesame paste-y sauce. (Halfway into our bowl we discovered, courtesy of our tablemate, that they can also be ordered hot.)
And the chaoshou were excellent -- plump, porky, flapping silky wings of pasta in a rich, sweetish red sauce surprisingly light on dried chili heat but bearing enough huajiao (Sichuan pepper) punch to leave a numbing tingle that extended halfway down my throat. (This is a good thing, for a huajiao lover.)
Total bill: One US dollar. In Chengdu it seems, memories are tasty and cheap.
Gong Ying Pin Ming (corner shop; look for the picture window), 39 Wenfu Yuan Jie (Street) -- walk a minute or two past the entrace to Wenshu Monastery, it will be on your right. A wide selection of local xiaochi.