When I moved to China a few years ago I discovered that strawberry season there starts in December. Growing up in London – where, for most of the year, fruit comes from far away, packaged in plastic and ripened by ethylene – the summer is notable for the return of strawberries. The arrival of home-grown strawberries that haven’t been flown in from Morocco has always been the moment that summer starts for me. In China, I always enjoyed the feeling, in the dead of winter, wrapped in a puffer jacket, of wandering over to the local fruit seller and finding there – nestled amongst dragon fruits and papaya – fresh strawberries.
It wasn’t just that they grew out of sync. They also came in many flavours. There was a vanilla flavour, and a caramel flavour and, most expensive of all, chocolate. I could never seem to get just a strawberry-flavoured strawberry. There was always some defining characteristic, like the tasting notes you might find on an artisan coffee bean or a decent bottle of wine. They were good, of course, because a bad strawberry is still a pretty decent fruit. Even the most expensive ones, the chocolate ones – which I felt did not taste particularly chocolatey but did taste like a good strawberry, but I could never find a strawberry that tasted like the one from my childhood. There is a clear flavour memory in my mind of the perfect strawberry.
Picture an azure sky above me, a boy of seven, blonde hair tousling in summer breeze, standing in the midst of bushels in a pick-your-own strawberry farm in Normandy. In my hand is a strawberry I have just picked. It is a juicy red and, maybe, I have squeezed it too hard while picking it because there is juice curling around my thumb. It is a large strawberry that seems to fit my entire hand. It is the exact firmness of something that was only moments ago still living. Dimpled and top-hatted with green leaves. I bite and my mouth is filled with an indelible flavour: the perfect balance of sweetness with a slight tart aftertaste. It is the gateway berry, the one I will chase for the rest of my life – the flavour of my childhood.
This is important to keep in mind, because for the past year, I had been living in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China’s South West. It is a city of 16 million people, known for its pandas. It is also one of the most famous culinary cities in China, a place synonymous with spicy food and bubbling hot pot. It is a city enthralled with the nostalgic flavours of the past. It was a city where I was constantly challenged to think about the flavours of my childhood. It wasn’t just that strawberries grew in winter; it was that everyone seemed to be able to draw to mind the flavours of their childhood so readily. My childhood’s flavour happened to be a Norman strawberry. It was a marker of my foreignness, a more subtle reminder than the obvious linguistic, cultural and physical differences that set me apart from my friends in the city.
Wherever I would go in Chengdu people would always talk about the flavour of their childhood – in mandarin wo xiaoshihou de weidao. I’d go out to eat with friends and, disappointed, they’d say that the twice-cooked pork was good, but no, it was not their childhood flavour bu shi wo xiaoshihou de weidao. We’d go to a restaurant because someone had said it was definitely still making food that was their xiaoshihou de weidao, only to go and find out that something had changed, and it was no longer quite that. The famous clear jelly dessert that people eat in Chengdu, well, it was now made with a manufactured power and so of course, it had lost the flavour of people’s childhoods. There were countless examples. Once I became attuned to this phrase, I heard it everywhere.
I had moved there, nominally, to do some preliminary fieldwork for my PhD in anthropology. But I could have chosen any major city in China for that work. I chose Chengdu because of the food. Cooking has always been my biggest passion. I thought that if I moved to Chengdu for a year maybe I could make some inroads into my PhD while also learning how to make Sichuanese food. In the end, I managed to go to a culinary school two mornings a week and I did a one-month stage with a famous Sichuanese chef, Yu Bo, who I had interviewed for Munchies a while back and who cooks elaborate banquets out of his mansion in the suburbs of the city. I also rented my flat, fortuitously, from a now-retired chef, and we shared a kitchen. I had, it seemed, created the perfect conditions to master the cuisine. But there was one problem – the flavour of my childhood.
Chengdu was one of the most food-obsessed cities I had ever been to, but it was also, it seemed, hungry for a golden age that had passed. People would rhapsodise about certain dishes and flavours but then remark that they were now long gone. But this posed a challenge to me as a recent immigrant to the city eager to learn about local cuisine. I had no reference point; none of these flavours existed in my childhood. They were all new to me. Worse, I was trying to learn how to make them myself, so I was always trying to produce dishes against an illusory scale of flavour that existed somewhere in the past. In over a year of cooking Sichuanese food for my friends in Chengdu, no one ever told me I made a dish that tasted like the flavour of their childhood.
Sichuanese food is having a global moment. ‘Chinese’ food in the West is finally starting to be taken seriously and to break the racist stereotypes that have stymied it in the past. Dishes like mushu pork, orange chicken or Chop Suey were born in the West and don’t exist in China. Neither does ‘Chinese food’ (there was a restaurant in Shanghai that was popular for a while serving ‘American Chinese food’ to bemused locals and homesick expats). Chinese food is regional, and the borders of these territorial flavour profiles are hotly contested. There are the four great cuisines (Lu, Chuan, Yue, and Haiyang) which can be further subdivided into the eight regional cuisines (Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shangdong, Sichuan and Zhejiang). The food writer Carolyn Philips maintains that China actually has thirty-five cuisines – meaning there are more distinct cuisines than there are provinces.
Regardless of how you subdivide the map, Sichuanese food will always be considered an indomitable force. It is this regional cuisine that is at the forefront of forcing the West to rethink significantly its understanding of ‘Chinese food’. Today, most major Western capitals have at least a handful of explicitly Sichuanese restaurants. London has had one since 2006 when Bar Shu opened just North of Chinatown on Frith Street. Now there’s Little Sichuan, Sichuan Folk, Emei and even a vegan Sichuanese pop-up in London fields, called Mao Chow. There are many more besides.
The success of Sichuanese cooking has been its distinctive flavour profile, the infamous mala. Ma means numb/spicy and la means hot/spicy. The former is created by the humble Sichuanese peppercorn and creates novocaine-esque tingles on the diner’s lips and tongue. The latter is created with dried chili peppers or flakes. It is the kind of spicy that you feel on the roof of your mouth and that makes you sweat and flush if you’re sensitive to it. Together, and deployed deftly, these two spices balance each other; with the numb tingles taking some of the fire, and the fire reminding you of the sensations you are losing to the tingles.
Sichuan has typically been a poorer region in China, one that while abundant in fruit and vegetables was hardscrabble and lean. This meant that chefs had to work out how to make simple ingredients go a long way. One of the most famous Sichuanese dishes, fish-fragrant aubergines, is a way of cooking aubergines in a sauce usually used for fish so that the abundant and cheap vegetable can stand in for the more expensive protein. This quality of the cuisine – bold flavours, simple ingredients – has made it an obvious choice for recent waves of chefsrom mainland China trying to cut their teeth in the competitive dining scenes of western cities.
But the global fortunes of Sichuanese food have caused ripples back home in Chengdu. ‘Sichuan cuisine, imperilled by success’, reads the title of a viral New York Times article from 2016. ‘Many cooks and food enthusiasts in Chengdu worry that, like a once-humble hometown band dazzled by sudden stardom, their tradition risks betraying its roots and selling out for easy but fleeting hits,’ the author writes, echoing a sentiment I would often hear in the city.
Part of the issue is the power of mala. Numbing spice is not the only flavour in Sichuanese cooking, but as the cuisine has taken off globally – and within China – it has come to dominate the culinary imagination. So have the dishes that are most immediately associated with it; Grandma’s pock-marked tofu (tofu cooked with chillies and numbing peppercorns), hot pot (a bubbling pot of cow fat and oil infused with chillies in which you cook meat as in a spicy non-dairy fondue) and ma-la tang (a spicy soup base where the diner chooses what meats and vegetables they want cooked in it).
There is a phrase that is often said within culinary circles in Chengdu, something like a mantra, yicai yige baicai baiwei ‘each dish its own, 100 flavours in 100 dishes’. I would sometimes mentally count how many minutes I was into a conversation with people in the local food scene before I would hear this phrase, and it would often arrive somewhere within the first fifteen to twenty minutes.
I heard it repeated by veteran chef Lan Guijun, who is famous for hand cutting noodles as thin as piece of silk thread, when I interviewed him for a documentary in 2019. He runs a small and extremely expensive restaurant out of a historic building a few blocks away from one of the busiest tourist streets in Chengdu. That year he had opened a restaurant in Shanghai – his first outside of Chengdu – and despite being in his seventies, he was flying 3,000 km across China at least twice a month. The restaurant wasn’t doing well. Online, people complained that the restaurant was too bland. They hadn’t got the memo about the hundred flavours. They only wanted mala.
‘People have a stereotype of what Sichuanese cooking is,’ he lamented. His cooking is extremely delicate and refined. His silk-thread noodles are served in a clear broth. He uses no MSG or artificial flavours, choosing rather to skim a chicken stock for hours. He takes no shortcuts. For people in Shanghai shelling out the equivalent of $350 USD to eat the food of one of Sichuan’s most famous chefs, the fact that over half of the menu consists of minutely balanced soups and the vegetables and seafood delicately poached in them is difficult to stomach.
Part of the issue is that Chinese cooking is not standardised. There is no equivalent of the multivolume Paul Bocuse epic that codified French cooking. Efforts by local governments to define certain dishes – like the Sichuanese provincial government saying that ‘strange flavour chicken strips’ can only be referred to as such if they use the meat of a rooster at least one year old – are met with derision online. This means that it is hard to say what any dish is definitively. It leaves chefs with a lot of room for interpretation. This is beautiful and exciting, but also means that while Chef Lan can argue elegiacally that his food is truly Sichuanese, there are plenty of grounds for the public to disagree.
In Chongqing, a city so large it is its own province, the regional government has tried to implement standards so exacting that the spring onions in a bowl of Chongqing noodles must be washed, drained and then sliced to a thinness of 0.3–0.5 cm. It’s not clear which unfortunate civil servant is supposed to be lurking around local noodle shops with a tape measure and a magnifying glass, but it seems like no one bothers to enforce these rules anyway.
Government attempts at standardisation are even more perverse given the fact that most chefs don’t use recipes, and the directions for dishes are often given in approximations (a ladle of, a sprinkling of, some, a handful . . .) Well-trained chefs have a master whose techniques they learn and refine over the course of decades. Chefs I met in Chengdu would point to their culinary lineage, and the majority of the top echelon of chefs in their fifties or sixties had been trained by a select few masters.
Lan Guijun, for instance, had the same master as Yu Bo, another famous Sichuanese chef, who now cooks elaborate banquets out of his mansion in the suburbs of the city. Occasionally I would eat in the restaurants of these chefs and would see the same dish, interpreted ever so slightly differently. It was as if I was listening to the instructions of their master second hand, the whisper reaching my ear one syllable changed.
This meant that if I wanted to learn how to make Sichuanese food it wasn’t just a simple matter of dropping myself into a restaurant, because wherever I would go, I would end up learning a particular interpretation of Sichuanese cooking. It mattered whom I learnt from. I had asked Lan Guijun if I could work for him part-time as a kitchen runner, but he politely refused.
‘If you want to learn Sichuanese cooking you need to start from the very foundations,’ he told me. He referred me to a buddy of his (who, of course, had trained with the same master). Master Wu was a gastronomy teacher, and he agreed to take me on as a pupil. Instead of just learning how to make the obvious dishes, the pockmarked tofu’s and fish-fragrant aubergines, I was electing to start my journey from the foot of the mountain. I found myself, a foreigner in my late twenties, attending a vocational high school in Chengdu.
On my first day attending Sichuan Province Commercial Trades Vocational High School, Chengdu Branch a visiting delegation of French culinary teachers had been invited to tour the school. Master Wu had asked me to translate for them. We were standing at the entrance to the running track staring out at rows upon rows of suited 14-year-olds performing a minutely choreographed routine of bows and arm movements. They were waiters in training, the sharp black of their waistcoats contrasting with the crisp white of their shirtsleeves. The students trouped by, in perfect unison. Their footfalls reverberated along the empty bleachers.
For obvious reasons (insurance, the potential for me to injure myself and the general strangeness of letting a random adult foreigner into a classroom of precariously pubescent teens all carrying cleavers) I was not allowed to attend practical courses at the college. Instead, two mornings a week Master Wu would let me in sit in on his theory classes.
This was not philosophical; we were not there to ponder the dialectics of noodle making. Instead, Master Wu would stand at the front of class, a wok and chopping board beneath him and a giant flat screen TV suspended on the ceiling above showing a close-up real-time stream of his hands. He would show us how to make particular dishes and how to create certain flavour profiles and then the students would spend the afternoon in their labs trying to recreate them. I was supposed to do the same, but at home.
Master Wu spoke in a thick Sichuanese dialect that I sometimes found impossible to understand. Most of the time this wasn’t much of a problem as I could watch his hands on the big screen and figure out what he meant – Sichuanese dialect isn’t a world away from Mandarin – but sometimes I’d lose my place and have to ask a small Tibetan teen who would sit in the row behind me.
Most of the students at the vocational college were the children of poor migrant workers. A lot of them were from non-Han ethnic minority groups (China has fifty-six recognised ethnic groups, though Han Chinese, the predominant group, makes up over 93 percent of the population). They spoke Mandarin, could understand Master Wu’s gruff Sichuanese, and almost certainly spoke another language at home. But still their prospects were bleak. If their parents had felt like they had an academic future, they would have been in a regular high school, preparing for the infamously brutal college entrance exam and the chance to better their lives by grading into an elite college. Instead, the parents had calculated that these kids probably didn’t have much of a chance. They’d chosen for them to pursue a trade.
There were occasional reminders of this. Sometimes Master Wu would bark at a student and wave his ladle in their face. If you think you’ll get away with that when you’re working . . . Another time he was teaching us how to make chili oil and it was only when I looked back over my notes that I realised that the quantities his recipe had involved – five litres of oil, a half-kilo bag of chilli flakes – would have produced enough for at least a thousand bowls of noodles. In other words, about the number of noodles these students would be making on an average double shift in a busy noodle shop.
The starting salary for a chef freshly graduated from college is 3,000 RMB a month in Chengdu. The average salary for the city is nearly 7,000 RMB. If they’re lucky, work will provide a dormitory, but it will be a wooden-plank bunk bed in a crowded room with their fellow chefs, buried in the outskirts miles away from the restaurant. Factoring in their commute, they will effectively live in the restaurant. They will get one day off a month.
The conditions of the school were similarly harsh. The classroom had some windowpanes permanently removed for ventilation and there was no central heating whatsoever. I would sit in the front row of class, closest to the wok to try to get some ambient heat while wearing a giant North Face jacket (like students everywhere none of them wanted to sit in the front row). By the end of the first hour I would be sitting on my hands to keep them warm. The students around me would be in thin chefs’ whites. They never complained.
I learnt a lot from Master Wu, but what he was teaching were not the culinary arts. This was cooking as vocation. Cooking as survival. The students were not passionate about their future profession. They hadn’t come to it by choice. They were careening towards it along the path of least resistance as if gliding on Teflon. They were a constant reminder of the warped relationship we have to our food, our ability to ignore so effortlessly the faceless hands of the many crop growers, stock pickers and line chefs who produce it, while glorifying the elite chefs who shine at the top of this largely invisible pyramid.
But unlike in the West, where it might be fashionable for someone who is studying for a PhD to also play around in kitchens, in China there are a hallowed few who manage to ascend that pyramid and go from a forgotten cook to a recognised chef. Yu Bo, who had the same master as Lan Guijun and Master Wu, had started his career chopping vegetables. He was part of the same generation as Lan Guijin, but it had been Chef Lan who got the tap on the shoulder to become a noodle maker (hence his famous silk-thread noodles). Chef Yu had graduated from vegetable chopper to preparing cold dishes, which is typically seen as a less impressive task.
Today, Chef Yu spends half his life in LA where he is attempting to open the first three-star Michelin Sichuanese restaurant. He was a favourite of both the late John Gould and Anthony Bourdain, and is rightly regarded as one of, if not the most intensely talented Sichuanese chefs in history. A meal that chef Yu cooked the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop in 2001 was an ‘epiphany’ that ‘changed [her] appreciation of Chinese food’. A nod to his past, he opens his banquets with sixteen vegetables, each chopped into its own geometric pattern, each one seasoned differently and presented arrayed individually across the table in tiny square porcelain. Yicai yi ge, baicai baiwei.
Chef Yu likes to spend the winter in Chengdu, because that is when the vegetables are at their peak. I had told him that I was in Chengdu and trying to learn how to cook and he kindly offered that I come and study with him for a month. It helped that two of my best friends, a potter who produces some of Chef Yu’s ceramic wares and a translator who works with him from time to time both leaned on him to let me come and study.
I lived in the city centre in Chengdu and Chef Yu cooked out of his mansion in the suburbs to the South of the city. It would take me over an hour to get to his house by the subway, which had only recently been extended out that far. In fact, the entire area of his compound, the Tianfu New District, had only a decade ago been rice fields. It was now a bustling high-rise suburb that contained over a million residents.
Chef Yu is a traditionalist. He lives with his 86-year-old mother-in-law. When I was there, much of the family’s daily life, when not preparing to host multi-course banquets for diners who would eat on a table in his living room, was spent recreating the dishes of her youth. The first family lunch I was invited to, we made goose braised with red carrots and she chewed tiny mouthfuls and commented that the carrots, alas, were not as flavourful as she remembered.
His bookshelves ached with old recipe books and occasionally when I would mention a dish I had recently eaten in town he would race over to one of the shelves and reach for a dishevelled tome from the past to try and find the most accurate recipe.
But this isn’t to say that Chef Yu is rigid in his cooking. ‘Innovation can only happen once you have perfect mastery of the traditions,’ he would often tell me. He was happy to try new techniques and to play with inversions on staple dishes (when I ate at his house in LA, he used avocado in his Grandma’s pockmarked tofu). But those innovations were concurrent with the roots of the cuisine he had spent a lifetime developing.
When I would cook with Chef Yu, I would marvel at how difficult it would be for an outsider to cook at his level. Not that that was my aim – it would be a dream to create food with even a tenth of his brilliance. It was the way that all of that history and tradition flowed through his hands. His dishes were layered with flavours that seemed impossible to recreate. They were sedimentary. Each bite exploded temporally, an exquisite blend of past and future that put you firmly in the present moment.
One time I asked him what he felt it meant to be a Sichuanese chef. He looked at me puzzled. ‘I am from Sichuan. Anything I cook is Sichuanese,’ he said.
But there were long days with Chef Yu that I found dispiriting. He is an incredible chef, but not a great teacher. He can be harsh and disconnected. On days when there weren’t clients – and these were fairly often, as I came towards the end of one of his seasons in Chengdu – there was often not a lot to do. When I’d ask how to make certain dishes, he’d show me the final three steps of the dish, pulling out pre-prepared stocks and soups from the freezer. It was like reading a book from the final chapter.
While this was frustrating, I was aware that it was also the case that even if I had seen all the steps, I wouldn’t be able to recreate them. There is a difference between knowing how to cook a dish on paper and actually being able to reproduce it perfectly every time, let alone in a way that might satisfy the diverse palates of local food-lovers.
And part of that issue is context. Once again, we return to the flavour of my childhood. Without an 86-year-old Chinese grandma and a lifetime eating Sichuanese food and cooking in restaurants in Chengdu, I have none of the reference points that would enable me to tell intuitively if I was making a dish correctly. There is a gulf between knowledge and practice. Sometimes when there was nothing to do, I would idly lounge on one his sofas and dream that all I had to do was read every word in his bookshelves if I wanted to be a great chef like him. But I knew that even if I did, I still wouldn’t be able to make those dishes the way he does.
In the early 2000s, the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop took Yu Bo, Lan Guijun and another famous Sichuanese chef, Xiao Jianming to cook at the culinary institute of America. While there, she took them to The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s temple of haute cuisine in Yountville, California. She wrote about the experience in Gourmet magazine. The title of her article, ‘Culture Shock’.
Lamb, served decadently rare, is dismissed as potentially dangerous. Niçoise olives confuse them. ‘They taste like Chinese medicine,’ Dunlop quotes the chefs as all saying. They are bemused by the individual servings of tiny portions on large white plates. The length of the meal is interminable. At Chez Panisse, another landmark of haute cuisine in California, Xiao Jianming refuses an oyster. They leave hungry, wishing the meal had had rice.
But they weren’t dismissive of the experience, as so many Western diners are when encountering foods out of their comfort zone. Dunlop writes:
Lan Guijun admits, ‘It’s just that we don’t understand, it’s like not knowing a language.’ Yu Bo is even more humble: ‘It’s all very interesting,’ he says, ‘but I simply can’t say whether it’s good or bad: I’m not qualified to judge.’
She ends her piece, published in 2005, saying that she thought that these strange flavours and culinary traditions that these chefs had just encountered for the first time would soon become a part of their everyday lives. China was rapidly developing; Chengdu was opening increasingly decent Western restaurants. There were more opportunities for the chefs to travel.
Little could she have known that just a few years later Chef Yu would be living half of his time in LA, or that Chef Lan’s restaurant would be competing in Shanghai against Michelin-starred competitors like the China flagships of Joel Robuchon and Jean Georges.
I love the image of those chefs at the French laundry, struggling to chew a piece of sourdough bread and eyeing an olive with suspicion. I know with hindsight, because I met these chefs years later, how formative these early tentative steps were. I wonder if Chef Yu looked at an oyster the way I looked at a sweet water noodle.
When I had first moved to Chengdu earlier in the year, friend had asked around if anyone was renting an apartment. This was how I ended up living with Brother Bing, a retired chef who lived with his wife in an apartment on the twenty-second story of an old building. The apartment was actually two separate apartments, with a connecting corridor. The side that I lived in was an L-shape, with a long living room that I never used, and in the base of the L there was a tiny study that connected via sliding doors to my bedroom. I shared a balcony with Brother Bing that overlooked the beating heart of Chengdu’s commercial district. At night, the buildings would flash with neon adverts and tracer beams would shoot up from a department store, the light tracking milky with pollution.
We also shared a kitchen. Each evening, I would come home from my sessions with Master Wu and try to recreate what I had learnt. Brother Bing would poke his head around the door. I always made enough for him and his wife, but he was rarely content with just waiting to be served at the dining room table. He’d come and see me consulting the notes I had taken, juggling my phone and a cleaver. He was a foot shorter than me. I’d be chopping things and he had a way of reaching underneath my arm to grab one of the knives from the knife rack and imperceptibly to put his body between me and the chopping board. It would happen so smoothly I wouldn’t even realise until I was stood next to our spice rack, the chopping board now out of reach. He’d then turn 45 degrees so that I could see exactly what was happening, and he’d show me where I had been going wrong.
Often, I’d be making a dish exactly as I had seen Master Wu prepare it a few hours before only to have Brother Bing subtly demolish everything I was doing. I couldn’t tell if it was me – that I’d managed to somehow forget exactly what I’d seen that morning or whether it was just lost in translation – or whether it was the fact that Master Wu and Brother Bing had trained with different masters themselves. Master Wu had come up through the Shufeng Garden, while Brother Bing had been trained by the Yinshi Company, which often sent chefs abroad. When I was being kind to myself, I chalked up my failures as a clash of styles; in more honest moments, I just had to admit that I was still learning.
It was, and remains, slightly embarrassing for me to cook Sichuanese food for Sichuanese people. This was especially true cooking for a retired chef and the family that had grown up eating his food. There is an idiom I really enjoy banmen nongfu ‘to wield an axe in front of the executioner’, which sums this up pretty well. There I was, wielding my cleaver in front of a stone-cold culinary assassin. Often, we would end up cooking bizarre hybrid meals. I’d make a sourdough bread and some tahini, and he’d deep fry lotus roots and toss some wood ear fungus in vinegar and sesame oil.
He really enjoyed pitta bread. I discovered that you could make hummus using entirely local ingredients. You can substitute tahini for Chinese sesame paste and chickpeas for pa-wan dou, a local bean. (An aside: dou means bean, and a chickpea is called a yingzui dou which would make it a bean in Chinese. I’m not really sure what makes a chickpea a pea in English and a bean in Chinese). It was hummus with a Sichuan dialect. While not quite the original, Brother Bing got a kick out me pulling a warm pitta from the tiny porta-oven we used and getting to dip it in the beige paste.
We would go this way, showing each other the dishes that had shaped us. Every so often, he’d make something and say, well, you know how to make this too! But I wouldn’t – or at least, not until he would point out to me that the base was a stock I had prepared a week earlier for another dish, and it would need the chilli oil that I’d learnt to make (in vast quantities) at school and that the way of preparing the fish was just a matter of simple knife work. I knew those things individually, perhaps, but they were floating vocabulary without a grammar. I was a long way from fluency.
And I still worried about context. I was trying to make dishes that I had had maybe two or three times before; was I getting it right? And was I making it the way it is made now, and not the way it should be made traditionally? Was it anything like the flavour of Brother Bing’s childhood?
When I asked him what the flavour he recalled most from his childhood was he said meat. That was it. Just meat.
I didn’t really understand until he explained that his most vivid childhood memories of food were of Chinese New Year, when the entire family would gather round and they would all eat a huge meal of meat and fish. They were a poor family and he was born in the mid-sixties right in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. His parents had lived through the great famine of the late 1950s associated with the failed policies of the Great Leap Forward. Thirty-five million people died during those years, it is estimated. For Brother Bing his fondest memories were simply of being satiated. ‘We ate to be full,’ he told me. ‘A good meal was just a meal that filled your stomach.’
It was in that context that I started to let go of my anxieties over my childhood flavour. I realised that many of the people I hung out with, who by chance happened to be at least in their fifties and working in the food scene in Chengdu, were making a false equivalence between their past memories of deprivation and their present lives of abundance. I am incredibly privileged that I don’t know what it is like to taste a piece of meat after a year of not being able to eat any. But I can imagine how tasty it would be. How could a piece of meat today, the second you’ve had that day, no matter how culinarily refined, ever compete?
‘They are slightly romanticising the food,’ Fuchsia Dunlop told me when I called her recently and told her about Brother Bing, ‘but maybe not, because it was seasoned with hunger and longing.’
Dunlop is now one of the world’s leading experts of Sichuanese cooking, the author of multiple award-winning cookbooks and a bestselling memoir. She is also white and grew up in Oxfordshire – a mainstay on international cooking programmes with regular articles in the Financial Times and Guardian. It is not just abroad that her expertise is recognised; the translation of her memoir was a publishing sensation in China and she has done multiple nationwide book tours across the country. Chef Yu would often make a dish for me and nod approvingly, ‘FuXia (as she is called in Chinese) is a fan of this one.’
I was interested in how it must for her, as someone who like me came to Sichuan in her early twenties, to be now so recognised for her expertise in a cuisine that has no reference point in her childhood. ‘As an outsider you have a different perspective which is almost ‘forensic’, she said, hesitating over her choice of the word, ‘what you perceive is not just background that you’re oblivious to. It is all very sharp and interesting.’ Online, on the app Douban, Chinese people would marvel at the all the things they had overlooked and were now seeing afresh through her eyes.
‘But the other thing,’ she continued, ‘is that by now I’ve been making Chinese food and speaking Chinese for more than half of my life . . . so actually the flavours of Sichuan make me ache with nostalgia for my youth!’
When we spoke, she told me about the frugal onion soup her mum had made her as a child, commenting on the fact that she hadn’t made it in years. Nowadays she almost exclusively makes Chinese food. It was just what seemed natural; the ingredients her hands instinctively reached for in the pantry. Her cooking is an extension of all the people and places she has travelled, the meals she has chronicled. In her latest book, The Food of Sichuan, the acknowledgements section runs four pages. It is a process, an accumulation. It might start later for some, this collection of experiences, but she argues that it is no different than growing up with a cuisine from birth.
In the end, I came to think that the flavour of our childhood is less a specific instance of flavour and more a recollection of childhood wonder. The burst of something new and unknown. I saw it in Brother Bing’s eyes when he ate a pitta bread. Why can’t you have the flavour of your childhood arrive in your sixties? Why must there only be one flavour? One childhood? We can always be children, at any age.
I also realised that part of my longing was that of being so intensely foreign in China. No matter how good my Mandarin, how many idioms I memorized or historical figures I could name there was always something out of reach, some essential element that you can’t learn as an adult. There was something about this that was always unsettling. Was it ever possible to bridge this gap? To somehow cross a divide that sometimes felt table length and on other occasions as deep as history. Perhaps not, but I think that is okay. While we might not share the same childhood, I think we can share the same feelings of joy and wonder.
All cultures are nostalgic for the flavours of their past. It might be true that vegetables are declining in nutrients, that meat is limp with hormones. Milk is thinner; fish are tainted with mercury. Fast food has changed our palettes; we cook less at home. There are more pre-packaged sauces; there are more E-numbers. There was nothing particularly novel in what I heard in Chengdu, it was just more pointed, more easily encapsulated in a single phrase.
I gave up trying to recreate the flavours of people’s childhoods. When I make Sichuanese food today, I stand in my kitchen and I hear Brother Bing telling me I need to add oil to the wok, or I see Master Wu swinging his ladle around. I make food that has been made before by many hands. But it is still my own, a patchwork of many influences. Like my Chinese, it is heavily accented. It might not be authentic, but it’s not for want of trying.
Wo xiaoshihou de weidao, the flavour of my childhood. Xiao shihou, if you’re literal in your translation, is not exactly childhood, but rather the “time when I was small.” I like that, because it seems evocative of my experience in Chengdu. To arrive in the city was to be small again. A friend in New York, who had never heard of Chengdu, asked me how I was adjusting to living in a village. It’s a 16-million-person city, I corrected him. The scale in China changes you. If you go and are not humbled, you aren’t paying that much attention. In this way, ‘the time when I was small’ can explain the awe that comes so naturally. When you are small, the world can seem so much larger. Culinary experiences can take on totemic significance. Maybe this is what we should cultivate; our smallness. Reflecting on my childhood flavour, I could better understand how I felt back in Normandy. When you are small, even a strawberry can loom large.
I asked my mother recently about the strawberry farm in Normandy. She looked at me blankly; we’ve never picked strawberries in France, she told me. I had my wires crossed. We’d picked strawberries in Kent, near my home in London, and I had spent a summer aged seven in Normandy where all I would eat was strawberries. These were both true, but in my brain they’d become composite. A thousand strawberries condensed into one. But I can still see it, I can still feel the juice running down my thumb. I know what that strawberry tasted like.
One of the final meals I had in Chengdu was one of Chef Yu’s multi-course banquets. He had been doing a pop-up with a famous French chef in Las Vegas, so he had returned to Chengdu later than usual. We were the first group of diners he was catering to that season. We sat around an immaculate white table in the serene calm of his living room. His mother-in-law was asleep upstairs. Course after course he took us on a potted tour of Chengdu, of Sichuan and of his life. And at the very end, he served a single strawberry, its green leaves chopped to create a flat surface. It sat upright in a piece of fine porcelain. It looked like a kiss.
I took a bite. It was a very good strawberry. But it was not the flavour of my childhood.
Images © Barclay Bram