In a couple of days we'll be heading back to Sichuan. I've been going through my notebooks from our January trip, and today I'm thinking about a lunch we ate in Chongqing.
Chongqing was a spur-of-the-moment sidetrip inspired by tales of deliciousness, and just plain curiosity. We never made it to Chongqing when we lived in Chengdu in the mid-80s (we never cruised up the Yangtze, either). But as a doctoral student in the late nineties I spent hours in a drafty archives building in Nanjing, reading scratched microfiche of documents which emanated from the city, which served as the provisional capital of the Guomindang-run Chinese Republic from 1937 to 1946. From these documents, and my readings on Republican China during its Chongqing era, I had a vision of an industrial coal smoke-saturated city tumbling down steep hills to the mighty Yangtze.
I wasn't too far off the mark. The air is probably better now than it was then, but the city -- or at least the part of the city that we stayed in -- appears to be permanently covered in soot. It was January, cold and grey and rainy and its streets, which really do wind down steep hillsides, were slick and uninviting.
Chongqing is re-developing rapidly and, as with most other Chinese cities, unattractively. But by accident we ended up staying near one of the Chongqing's oldest neighborhoods, whose twisting lanes and alleys hide a late Qing-era post office and a Republican customs house, among other historical treasures. And that's where we spent much of our two days there.
Two hours after dropping our bags in our hotel we found ourselves at a little shop on the edge of the neighborhood. I doubt that it had any pedigree, but it did boast a sort of ambassador, a friendly elderly busybody who'd been living in the neighborhood for decades. While we ate she drifted over to our table and away again, checking on our progress ("Oh, you really aren't afraid of chili, are you!") and then reporting back to the folks hanging out at the neighboring shops and to others who'd just been passing by when they noticed a couple foreigners feasting on noodles and stopped to investigate.
The lady running the shop was a superb cook, and the dishes on offer were just different enough from much of what we'd been eating in Chengdu to be interesting. We ate daoshao mian ("knife-cut" noodles) two ways: in a spicy broth with plenty of leafy greens and the same yellow peas we'd enjoyed with our "palm" noodles in Chengdu,
and stir-fried with bean sprouts and chunks of lamb.
The noodles were a pasta-lover's dream: thick, uneven, and rough-textured with lots of elasticity and chew, fantastic in soup but even better stir-fried, having sucked up all the smoky flavor of the wok and the richness of the meat.
The food in Chongqing is said to be even more fiery than that in Chengdu. We certainly warmed right away to the lajiao (chili paste) served with our noodles. It was extra chunky with a definate roasted, almost burnt edge and a hint of black vinegar sourness. We added it to our noodles in pingpong ball-sized spoonfuls.
Over lunch Dave and I congratulated each other on this find. This little eatery, we knew, would be a place we'd return to on our next, hopefully longer, visit to Chongqing. The city, ugly on the surface, was seeming more and more intriguing.
As we were leaving I asked the shop's ambassador for a street address.
"It doesn't matter, this restaurant won't be here next week," she told me. "Didn't you notice that many of these buildings are vacant? The whole area is scheduled for redevelopment."
I suspect that if we make it back to Chongqing this time what we'll find in its place is a massive hole in the ground.
It's China: now you see a neighborhood, now you don't.