Well, that was quick -- or so it seems, anyway. We're back in Kuala Lumpur after ten days in Chengdu, more convinced than ever that this southwestern Chinese city deserves to be the next gastronomic "it" destination. (In March UNESCO awarded Chengdu the designation of City of Gastronomy.)
On this trip, thanks to an assignment Dave was working on, we had occasion to sample the food at a few of the city's finer (and more expensive) restaurants. We sat at beautifully laid tables, were treated to a few breathtaking presentations, and dined on some very well-prepared dishes.
I'm thankful for the opportunity. But those kind of places just aren't where our hearts lie.
This is what thrilled us when we visited Chengdu last January, what drew us back this time, and what has us already planning our next trip: a low-slung structure of unfinished bricks capped with a corrugated metal roof, on a quiet alley lined with iron rice bowl-era low-rise apartment blocks. Inside: a lone cook making magic one dish at a time.
His equipment: a single wok, a spatula and a ladle, and one burner.
Places like this are called "fly" restaurants. The term isn't much used outside of Chengdu, and it refers to the less-than-hygenic kitchens and dining areas of places like this. But we didn't find fly restaurant conditions to be any more distasteful than those at your average casual southeast Asian eatery or street stall.
What fly restaurants do have is plenty of soul. These are the places to find real, honest-to-goodness jiachang cai (home-style cooking).
This is Mr. Zhang in his fly restaurant kitchen. Mr. Zhang prepared many meals for us; on some days we ate both lunch and dinner at his place. We hung out by Mr. Zhang's side, watching and listening and peppering him and his wife with questions. Mr. Zhang's been working his single burner for 11 years. He's a master.
Our first taste of Mr. Zhang's prowess:
La rou (Sichuanese pine bough-smoked and air-dried pork belly) with Chinese leek shoots and black beans, dofu gan (dried bean curd) with leeks, dried chilies, and Sichuan peppercorn, and qingjiao roupian, slices of pork stir-fried with fiery green chilies and garlic shards. Each dish was so deeply flavorful it could have stood on its own, accompanied by nothing more than rice.
And this was just Meal Number One. It only got better.