Chengdu ren are known throughout China as incomparable idlers, lovers of leisure in the extreme.
It's a stereotype to be sure, but it's not far off the mark. Chengdu-ites delight in long, sumptuous meals. They play mahjong, board games, and cards with a passion. (Walk down any Chengdu street any day of the week, at any time of the day -- you'll find at least ten games in progress.)
But the tip-top municipal past-time has to be tea drinking.
Back in the day much of it was done in sweet little tea houses where elderly men sat up front telling stories in thick, sing-song Sichuanese dialect (I never understood a word, but they were fun places to hang out nonetheless). Few, if any of these places are still standing.
But we're happy to report that in Chengdu, tea drinking is alive and well. It's just been moved to the tea garden.
A visit to a Chengdu tea garden is not like a stop at Starbucks. You don't run in, slug back your pick-me-up over a laptop, and then be on your way. You certainly don't get it to go. When you head to the tea garden you expect to hunker down for a good two or three, or more, hours.
Consequently, you bring along entertainment: the newspaper, a book, cards, mahjong tiles (and a cloth to lay over the table so the tiles don't click-clack too loudly), Chinese checkers, knitting, friends or family, and plenty of gossip. You dress for the weather, be it 95 and muggy or 42 and bone-chillingly damp. Air-con, fans, and heaters are not provided. (In the winter padded shoes are highly recommended.)
At a Chengdu tea garden outside food isn't just allowed, it's de rigeur. Anyone who arrives without enough nibbles -- sunflower seeds, peanuts, mandarins (in the winter), a hot pack of dumplings -- to see himself through 30 hot water refills is pretty much considered a nut job. (If you run out there's usually a vendor or snack hut within reach.)
After just a few days in Chengdu we found ourselves slipping into the tea garden habit. It's the perfect activity (or non-activity, depending on how you look at it) for those hours right after lunch, when your feet are too sore from a morning of walking to attempt more sightseeing and you're trying to fight off the urge to nap. Grab a chair, sit back, and get mildly caffeinated -- an ideal way to while away those hours of the afternoon sandwiched by one meal and the next.
We quickly identified our favorites. We took a shine to the tea garden at the riverside park by the Jinjiang Hotel, for its gaggles of old-timers and bicycle cart vendors selling three kinds of sunflower seeds, two kinds of toasted favas, dried fruit, and several other unidentifiable edibles.There's a lane of old-style buildings south of Xin Nan bus station that looks like old Chengdu, with its single-story timber and cement houses fronted by chairs and tables, and we passed a couple of hours sipping there as well.
The tea garden at Renmin Park offers excellent people watching. And one Sunday we found ourselves, thanks to a recommendation, in a not so garden-ish tea garden on an open square shadowed by apartment buildings, where a table of local gangsters and their fantastically coiffed molls on one side, and children riding huge stuffed animals fitted with wheels on the other, held our attention for several hours.
But our favorite tea garden by far is the one inside Wenshu Monastery (opening photo).Leaning back in one of its bamboo chairs you can almost imagine the that Chengdu skyline still tops out at six stories, as it did back in the eighties. The tea garden is always packed with groups of young people and old people and tourists and locals, and the odd lone foreigner with a book. It's loud and crowded and in those respects very, very Chinese -- but in a way that makes you sigh and wonder why Westerners can't figure out how to have so much fun over cups of tea and piles of sunflower seeds.
The tea is reasonably priced - 10 yuan a cup (with endless refills of hot water, of course) compared to 20 or 30 elsewhere (though you do have to pay 10 yuan to get into the monastery). And instead of a plastic thermos of boiled water on your table you get roving hot water guys -- and one gal -- who, with a practiced tip of their weathered copper tea kettles, top up your cup.
But maybe the best reason to love the tea garden at Wenshu Monastery is its location, right down the street from one of Chengdu's oldest bakeries, Gong Ting Gao Dian (Royal Bakery).
We discovered Gong Ting Gao Dian one afternoon after lunch in a nearby restaurant. We were pondering a diversion to the monastery's tea garden, but were snackless. We couldn't go in empty-handed; it would be akin to announcing ourselves as tea garden novices.
The crowd above caught our eye. You don't often see people in China queueing for baked goods (you don't often see people in China queueing, period. But that's maybe a topic for another post) . Then again, you don't often find bakeries in China selling local specialties that are worth queueing for.
Goods were flying off the shelves -- Chinese tourists were walking away with multiple bags of goodies -- and a local told us the place was at least 50 years old. That too is something you don't often see in China, a food shop with half a century of history.
I stepped up , pointed to a few items that caught my eye, and we made for the monastery.
The best of our catch were a few varieties of bar cookie-ish sweets. There were two types with fillings sandwiched between layers of rice, or perhaps, soy flour. One featured ground sesame; it was rich but not too sweet and as delicious as you might imagine anything that tastes sesame halva to be.
The other boasted a fine, almost flowery fragrance and tasted first of rose water and then jujubes or Chinese dates. We detected raisins and crushed walnuts as well. If this filling were released from its powdery confinement and molded into a loaf it would be the Christmas fruit cake you wouldn't throw away.
But the absolute star of this show -- and of the afternoon and in fact of several subsequent afternoons -- was an intriguing 'bar cookie' with a Sichuan kick, featuring a filling of chopped peanuts and sesame and sunflower seeds, a nice bit of salt, and an ever-so-subtle trace of, yes, ground huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn) sandwiched between two thin layers of short-crust pastry.
Dave described the moist filling as 'almost like cookie dough in texture and in the way that the salt is forward on the tongue'. (Testimony to the specialness of this sweet, for Dave is rarely verbal when it comes to food; he photographs, he doesn't describe.)
With each bite that salt flavor hit the tongue dead-center, and then was followed -- softly -- by the huajiao. It was addictively savory-sweet, and we had to marvel at the way the Sichuan peppercorn was seamlessy incorporated into the overall flavor profile. Used in used in trace amounts, like ground cloves, there was just enough huajiao to flavor, but not enough to numb.
Yet another testimony to the ingenuity of Sichuanese cooks. And for us, an additional reason to return to Wenshu Monastery's tea garden again and again.
Royal Bakery -- about two and a half blocks past the entrance to Wenshu Monastery, on your left. Look for the queue.