I must admit that I despise the word 'extreme'. 'Extreme' sports, 'extreme' refreshment, 'extreme' exitement ... 'Extreme' is one of those words that advertisers have shoved down our collective throats to the extent that I feel bile rising whenever I hear the word. Why do I now use this word that I so abhor? Because this dinner was planned as a birthday celebration for an old friend ... in China. Long way to go for a meal, but damn was it ever good.
Birthdays are odd in China (hard to believe, eh?) in that the person having the birthday is expected to throw their own party and pay for it as well. Your status is judged by who attends and how many attend. Having a friend fly in from the states to attend is a big coup.
Sichuan cooking means that is it going to be hot, spicy, but not brutally spicy. In fact many, if not most, of the dishes served are easily recongizable as food served in your local, higher end chinese restaurant. The biggest difference is a wonderful little addition called a Sichuan peppercorn. They look much like a regular peppercorn, but the flavor is similar to anise and the pepper has a mild anesthetic effect that slightly numbs the mouth making the mass of chili peppers much more tolerable.
The first dish wheeled in front of me was a very recongnizable and perfectly prepared Moo Shu Pork with a sichuan sauce. Moo Shu Pork is typically a northern Chinese dish but the chefs had no qualms about adding chili peppers and peppercorns and calling in Sichuan. Notice, if you will, how the sauce looks very oily and that is because it is. Most of the food we ate in China was quite oily, greasy even.
The next revolution brought me an eyebrow raiser. Boneless baked chicken breast served in an incredibly spicy peanut laced sichuan sauce. Indescribably delicious. The surprise was that it was served cold. Even being served cold it still took several glasses of Tsing Tao to ease the burn enough that I could go on to round 3.
Round 3 ... want to try to guess what this is? Meat on a stick? Sorry, not even close. Breaded, deep fried squash. The potato, fried onion, corn and green chili relish was even better than the squash.
French fries you are guessing? Maybe, but again, no. You have missed 2 now, one more wrong answer and I will have to kick you out of the cab. These lovelies are fried Lotus root strips. Light, delicate with flavors unlike any that I have tried before. In this case the chilis were not overpowering in the least and added a much needed kick.
Desert in the middle of the meal? Why the hell not? Super chilled watermelon and pineapple with strawberry ice cream Holy poop on a stick. The Chinese have only recently discovered ice cream and you find ice cream shops everywhere. I saw as many Ben and Jerry's as I saw McDonalds. Dairy Queen, Nestle and even stand alone soft serve McDonalds ice cream windows are everywhere.
I kind of wish that the wheel had been rotating in the other directions, because I really could have used the ice cream after this dish of pork stir fried with green and red chili peppers. Oh sure, they threw in a couple of carrots and potatoes for texture, but they were quite superfluous. This one I call 'Oh my god my mouth is on fire'.
Look closely at this one. See there at the top of the dish? That is the head of the whole catfish boiled in oil with masses of chili peppers and peppercorns. As is served myself this one I came across a surprise that made me pause for a moment. A bit more than a moment actually. Long enough that the guests laughed long and loud at my confusion for underneath the fish was a mass of long skinny rice noodles that looked uncomfortably like the intestines from the fish floating above. I was assured by the locals that they also had no interest whatsoever in eating fish guts either. Delicious.
Sesame seed coated peanuts. Simple and magnificent.
Bubba recognizes this one. Could any self-respecting BBQ connoisseur be fooled at all by pork ribs with dry rub? Slow cooked and so tender that it was difficult to even pick them up without the meat falling off the bone. Hot and spicy? Good guess.
Pork dumplings are a staple in all areas of China. And I did my very best to eat every one. Steamed pork dumplings like this are the most common, but you can find dumpling served in so many ways that you literally cannot try them all. I know, I tried. Dumplings served floating in broth. Dumplings with spicy broth. Dumplings with the broth on the inside of the wrapper (careful, you will burn the skin off the inside of your mouth). Dumplings with chicken. Dumplings with vegetables. Dumplings with beef. I have to say that I am quite sure that I ate more than a hundred in 2 weeks. Yes, even for breakfast.
Simple stir fried potatoes with onions and *gasp* chili peppers. Simple, elegant and perfect.
Regardless of what you have heard about China being a closed society the Chinese are anxious to talk about democracy, freedom (or the lack thereof) and, of course, the economy. They have lots of questions about how a free society works and lots of accurate, honest observations. Not once did I see any sneaky, sunglasses wearing government officials tailing us to make sure that we kept our evil western thoughts from contaminating their blissfully ignorant citizens. Conversation flowed, the weak Chinese beers flowed and we had many toasts to friendship, our countries, our families and the future. While I was quite aware that their goal was to get me rip roaring drunk they really had no clue what kind of lush they were dealing with and I was quite pleased that I was able to walk a straight line out of the restaurant while my new friends pinballed off of every verticle element in their path on their way out. How much for all of this you ask? You may be surprised to find that this feast with all these unbelievably wonderful dishes and massive quantities of beer cost about $120.00.
Frankly I had never really had much of a desire to travel to China but I have been charmed by the people and overwhelmed by the energy of a society coming out of their dark ages. And I can't wait to return.