The Party's 5-point star still shines on these baked and griddled guo kui
And you thought we were done with Sichuan. Heck, we're not even finished with guo kui.
Meat-riddled, crisp-griddled dough is all well and good, but a chewy pillow of freshly made flatbread has its own special appeal. And in Sichuan it assumes a number of delicious forms.
On a toe-numblingly chill morning in Langzhong we found this vendor selling thick guo kui about 5.5 inches / 14 cm in diamter. Working from a compact (and undeniably cute) wheeled wooden prep stall cum display case,
she rolls out, griddles, and warms in her tandoor-like oven made from a metal drum flatbreads in three flavors: baide ("white", or plain), xiande (savory, seasoned with salt and the barest hint of ground Sichuan peppercorn, and tiande ("sweet"). Though we'll never turn up our nose at any food seasoned with Sichuan peppercorn as an ingredient, it was her sweet guo kui, from which smoky "red" (brown, really) cane sugar oozes like the filling from a molten flourless chocolate cake, that we couldn't resist.
Big enough to serve as hand warmers as well as breakfast, her flatbreads boast an unbeatable glutenous chew tempered by a wee bit of surface crispness, and lots of wholesome wheat flavor. They'd rival any artisan loaf I've eaten elsewhere in the world.
She guilds the lily with a well-worn wooden stamp, with which she presses a sweetly retro 5-point star into the surface of each flatbread. I sorely coveted that stamp ... and I've thought about these guo kui at least once a day since we left Langzhong.
Back in Chengdu, a common sight on the street are these oval guo kui made in a tandoor-style oven with a narrow opening and no griddle.
Our partner in local gluttony J introduced us to these thinner. slightly crispier, almost pancakey flatbreads on our first night in town. The man who sold us one each of his xiande (ever-so-lightly flavored with dried chili) and tiande (with granulated cane sugar rolled right into the dough) guo kui was from Anhui province.
Anhui-style sweet guo kui baking in an oil drum oven
Over subsequent days we began to notice vendors (women, mostly) selling this type of guo kui all over the city, and every one told us they were natives of Anhui, from its capital Hefei or nearby.
How is it, we wondered, that a tribe of Hefei folks found themselves in Chengdu selling guo kui? Why Chengdu? And are there communities of Anhui guo kui sellers in other Chinese cities as well? (Please weigh in on this if you're able.)
Like other flatbread sellers these gals (and the single guy we met) roll their dough out on the spot.
I have to be honest -- we weren't quite as enamored of these Anhui-style flatbreads as we were of our Langzhong dough pies. Because they're so thin they go a bit stiff the minute they start to lose heat ... and in terms of flavor a sprinkle of granulated white sugar just can't compete with a lake of melted brown sugar. But if you can get them hot out of the tandoor the savory version is just fine, a pleasant diversion to carry you until your next culinary discovery.
Which, if you're lucky, just might be a Sichuanese French dip.
I'm first and foremost a dumpling and chili person, and all I wanted from my last morning of grazing in Sichuan was a steady parade of jiaozi in spicy red oil. I got it, in spades (and you'll see more of that later) but I also got something I wasn't looking for: perhaps the best sandwich -- no, make that the best three sandwiches -- I've ever eaten.
North of Tianfu Square, back behind the big Mao statue and kitty corner to the Sheraton Hotel, sits a nondescript restaurant that's called something like "The Original Chengdu Dandan Mian". Next to the shop's entrance is a window behind which truly amazing things are being done with wheat dough.
Behind that window, said wheat dough is being rolled into flat rounds, slapped onto the sides of a clay oven, left to puff and blister, and then transferred to a seasoned griddle where it continues to cooks through.
Then those soft, puffy dough discs are transferred to nearby wooden cutting board where, still hot from the oven, they're split
and stuffed with your choice of savory fillings -- like translucent slices of crunchy pig ear, dressed in a piquant sauce of chili and sesame oils, black vinegar, sugar, and seasoned soy sauce,
Guo kui filled with sweet and spicy sliced and dressed pig ear
or pieces of pork stir-fried with sweet and hot fresh green peppers, a melange of mild and spicy, tender and crispy, rich and fatty while at the same time fresh and green.
A stir-fry of pork and green pepper (hot and mild) fills this guo kui
The best of the bunch, however, is the local version of the French dip.
To make one of these the shop's guo kui mistress piles slices of paper-thin roast pork in a small bowl and douses them with a thin but richly meaty jus fragrant with anise and cinnamon. She then stuffs the anointed pork slices into a flatbread, following with lashings of jus before quickly sliding the whole gorgeous, dripping mess into a plastic bag.
The bread is hot and fresh and crispy-skinned, so it defies disintegration, maintaining integrity to the last bite. Yet its its insides soak up the gravy like a sponge. Every mouthful starts with a rush of jus -- then, chewy breadh and tender pork. There's no vegetable garnish, no condiments mucking things up. Just meat and dough, and spiced meat juices.
It's a sandwich to turn a dumpling fanatic's thoughts away from doughy things that are steamed and boiled instead of baked and griddle-crisped. For a while, anyway.
Chengdu Dandan Mian, No. 34 Renmin Zhong Road (kitty-corner to the Sheraton Lido Hotel). Buy your ticket inside the shop. A meat-filled guokui will set you back 5 yuan (about 85 cents).