Chongqing is not Chengdu. That was evident from the moment we stepped off the train.
It's bigger, sprawl-ier, uglier. Gritty and grey, cloaked in a layer of coal and industrial pollutants. Chongqing sprawls along both banks of the Yangtze River, yet feels claustrophobic. Neighborhoods march up and down hillsides, packed tight as honeycombs. And the city is in the midst of a massive makeover that aims to make it into a "little Hong Kong". Not for Chongqing Chengdu's old neighborhoods of work unit-era lowrises built along tree-lined streets. The municipality's mayor is after endless office towers, shopping malls, and high-rise luxury apartment buildings encircled by an ever-expanding network of wide, efficient ring roads.
As for Chongqing-ites, they are a bit rough around the edges. Not as easy to smile as Chengdu ren. Not as likely to be hanging out in tea gardens or sitting at sidewalk tables playing mahjong and cards and snacking and shooting the breeze. They're can be a little short, initially, when you speak with them. On the street, they push more.Chongqing people have an edge.
Yet we found ourselves wishing, after two nights, that we had more time in Chongqing . Something alluring about the challenge of getting beneath its veneer. Some day, we'll return.
In the meantime we'll remember fondly two meals eaten in a single day, on the street and in sub-40F/4C weather (not as unpleasant as it sounds), within spitting distance a stone's throw of each other.
The first, in an alley spoking off a small wet market. It's late for lunch and we're hunting, hungry, dipping our heads against a persistent mist, when we see: a few tables protected from the elements by a striped plastic tarp, handwritten characters on a blackboard hung beneath an open kitchen raised 10 feet off the ground, customers eagerly tucking in. We order sparingly (we don't want to spoil dinner).
Dou hua -- flower' bean curd -- a Sichuan specialty of almost spongy fresh bean curd simmered in water and served hot with black bean-chili or green chili-cilantro sauce; smoked pressed bean curd stir-fried with pickled chilies and local leeks; stem lettuce stir-fried with dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns (which, since Sichuan, is pretty much how I fry all my leafy greens.)
The chef smiles at us from his perch above our patch of pavement. The 'attendant' (his wife, we think) beams when we ask for la jiao (chili sauce), even more so when we request a second helping. It's a typically jiachang cai ('homestyle' dishes) sort of meal, delicious yet built around everyday ingredients. In case we haven't already driven this home with previous Chengdu posts -- these are the sort of meals that, in Sichuan at least, never fail to deliver.
We decide to return for dinner ... and find the literal hole in the wall closed. But just around the corner another is gearing up for business.
It's still cold and wet. We're offered tables inside the shop but it's much livelier on the street. In front of us a man and woman work a grill; they're making chuan-chuan -- food, all kinds of food, grilled on wooden skewers The characters for chuan-chuan say it all: 串 串. This skewered specialty is all the rage in Chengdu, but as we find out they do it a bit differently in Chongqing.
At the entrance to the restaurant is a table displaying this evening's ingredients. What a fantastic way to order dinner, gazing at an array of tempting fresh and pickled vegetables and smoked and fresh meats rather than a menu.
We end up with a couple of wonderful surprises, like snow peas (it's the first time we've seen them in Sichuan) stir-fried with bacon-like la rou, and fava beans cooked with local leeks and a bit of stock and served with a healthy dusting of ground Sichuan peppercorn. The creamy blandness of the beans is a perfect partner to the numbing bite of the peppercorn.
And there is a dish that by now, almost three weeks into our time in Sichuan, has become an old favorite: a delicious fresh, slightly astringent green-and-red leaf called zhu er gen tossed in a dressing of sesame oil, la jiao, black vinegar, and salt. This version of the dish is especially nice because the leaves have been left attached to their thick stems and roots, which possess a juicy crunchiness akin to celery.
As we eat we observe the chuan-chuan action. Two men arrive and select skewers of eggplant, cauliflower, liver, and big fat pork-filled dumplings (yes, dumplings) to be grilled over the charcoal. They also select a bundle of green onions and a bowl of what looks to be brains.
In Chengdu chuan-chuan is served on the stick with a dipping sauce on the side. We're not sure if the radical variation we're witnessing is special to this restaurant or if it's a Chongqing-style chuan chuan cooking in general. But it's wild.
As the items are cooked they're thrown into a pan set over low heat to keep warm. Once everything is done it's transferred to a big metal bowl and tossed with seasonings -- a bit of chopped green onion and cilantro, soy sauce and la jiao and sesame oil to the customer's specifications, perhaps some ground Sichuan peppercorn and dried red chili flakes.
The entire mess is then dumped on platter and served.
Careful plating this was not, but the muddle on the middle of the table next to us was curiously appetizing. As we picked at the remnants of our standard-order (but tasty) Sichuanese meal we watched the two men dip their chopsticks into the pile on the plate between them and wondered if we'd missed out on the messy essence of street eating in Chongqing.
Dinner: stall on Da Tong Lu across from the Bank of Communications (No. 70), Chongqing Sichuan. Lunch: in the alley just around the corner from dinner.