Chengdu, Asia's first City of Gastronomy (and that's official)
Earlier this year, Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, won its bid to be named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, making it the first city in Asia to be awarded such an accolade, and the second in the world (the first, in 2005, was Popayan in Colombia).
Criteria for approval are certainly thorough. Here is what's needed to qualify: A city must have a well-developed cuisine that is characteristic of the region; nurture a vibrant community of chefs and traditional restaurants; show local know-how of traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial and technological advancements; maintain traditional wet markets; have a history of hosting gastronomic events; prove active in the promotion of sustainable local products; and be committed to nutritional education and the inclusion of bio-diversity conservation programs in cooking schools.
Key to it all is to understand what gastronomy means in terms of the relationship between food and culture.
The win was quite a triumph for Chengdu, but the question is: what happens now?
The city's Vice Mayor Wang Zhonglin has already pronounced that he is "vigorously devoted to a food culture industry" and must now fulfill responsibilities including hastening the process of bringing local cuisine up to international standards, and working in a highly professional manner in order to go global. Certainly gaining international recognition for Sichuan cuisine is at the heart of the city’s ambition, but that journey seems likely to take time.
Giving 'Sichuan' food a global profile
Even Hong Kong does not really have any stand-out Sichuan chefs, and while so-called Sichuan restaurants can be found in even small towns in Europe, London's Bar Shu is probably the only Sichuan restaurant outside China with an international profile.
Consultant to that restaurant is Briton Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Sichuan Cooking, which remains the seminal text (at least in English) on the market.
Dunlop studied at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine -- the first foreigner ever to do so -- and makes a fine, but lonely, ambassador for the cuisine of Sichuan Province.
The cuisine of Shanghai, for example, has a wider exposure, partly due to the city's cosmopolitan history, and today it draws a tremendous amount of tourists (Expo not withstanding).
Sichuan province is still considered an out-of-the-way stop on a first-time China traveler's itinerary.
Many people are also reluctant to try the cuisine because of its reputation for being fiery. Which is true. The tongue-numbing Sichuanese peppercorn is an acquired taste and there is a repertoire of 15 different chilies for incorporation, each bringing nuanced flavors and aromas.
But according to Mr. Lee, chairman of the Sichuan Food Association, only 20 percent of Sichuan dishes are spicy. A balanced meal would feature more subtle dishes to complement spicy, complex dishes, and soothe the palate.
If, as many say, the best cuisines in the world are those with an ability to incorporate ingredients from afar, it should be noted that chilies were introduced to China (by the Spanish, from South America) and it is impossible to imagine Sichuan cooking without chilies today.
But the province also has a wealth of produce at its fingertips, including all kinds of river fish, wild vegetables, and an eclectic range of game and offal such as rabbit, venison and dove (for the gizzards).
Fashionable city restaurants serve up newly imported goods like sashimi, turtle, shark's fin, foie gras and truffles. However, this may be going too far. A dual traditional-modern cuisine that references China's rich cultural past is surely of far more interest to the international gourmet than dishes with a negligible sense of place.
Where to eat in Chengdu
$$$ Yunmen Emerald Restaurant
The drabbest of buildings houses this funky, fashionable restaurant. Marvelous traditional food -- ox tongue, smoked tofu -- interspersed with modern and even molecular cooking.
Block 1, no. 27, section 4, Renmin Nanlu, Wuhou Qu, Chengdu, Sichuan, tel +86 (0) 28 8602 6999/ 8535 3888
$$ Dao Miao
Sichuan opera and hotpot in a gorgeous, atmospheric traditional Sichuan-style house. Platters of vegetables alongside meat -- mostly offal -- and a choice of hot or mild pots.
$ Street food
Eat street food in and around this bustling, colorful (and clean) wet market in the Qing Yang district. Spicy noodles here, crispy pancake there, and then barbecue rabbit.