Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Szechuan Battle

One of the most food oriented cities in China is Chengdu. It's considered to be the food capital of this amazing country, the Lyons, France of the East.It is also a culinary World Heritage site , attracting thousands of foodies and gourmands a year. Unfortunately this is what's spoiling the broth so to speak.

Chris Buckley, who has covered several aspects of Chinese life and politics wrote about the tug of war between traditional chefs and the next generation who is trying to draw in crowds in today's New York Times Food section. Lively debates have even broken out about upholding culinary traditions and embracing new ways and new customers.The country , as it always, got involved. The  recipe guidelines got updated and, yes, it seems that the government gives a kind of  forced advice on how to cook. One traditional dish " strange flavored chicken strips" , a cold dish that includes dark vinegar should use the meat of a one year old rooster and no other kind of chicken.To outsiders this may seem too much., however tradition is important to the Chinese and that includes recipes. (although Szechuan cooking as we know it is only a century old). The regulations are kind of pointless here  because Szechuan cuisine is really a melange of other recipes from other areas of the country.Several centuries of war, trade and migrations brought outsiders who contributed chiles, fermented bean paste,sugar and other spices along with their own cooking traditions. It solidified around 1916 as a regional cuisine.Local food writer Wang Shiwu describes the Chengdu attitude this way:"whatever is attracted in your cuisine,I can absorb and adapt it."

However too much of the new is creeping in and bastardizing the cuisine. New chefs are using such diverse and Western ingredients as mayonnaise or using  a new ingredient such celtuce or asparagus lettuce to kung pao chicken  which doesn't need it.Traditional chefs there need to grasp the idea that their cuisine, like others, needs to evolve. A camp of chefs hope to remake Sichuanese cooking for more urbane, middle class tastes.but built on the core of traditional ingredients and techniques.Some have opened airy , modern restaurants that serve dishes with contemporary twists and presentation. According to one savvy chef , Yang Wen, whose restaurant Lotus Shadow features those same kind of dishes. "There's no survival without innovation." One creation is  braised shrimp infused with jasmine tea, a world away from the home spun fare favored by old fashioned revivalists.Others hopefully will follow , especially this last group. As English food writer Fuschia Dunlop a longtime Chengdu  resident puts it , Chengdu has an incredibly high concentration of restaurants and a fiercely competitive restaurant industry so people are looking for the newest best thing. The old gets old very quick and that means no interest in it, despite any cultural meaning.

In the end, a new kind of tradition won out. It's taking traditional spices and cooking methods and giving them new spins and twists. Will it work? Probably . It's the old with a refreshing whiff of the new.

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