Sichuan cuisine facing a crisis

A table full of traditional Sichuan dishes at Tian Yuan Yinxiang in Chengdu. Old-timers want to preserve the cuisine's culinary heritage.
A table full of traditional Sichuan dishes at Tian Yuan Yinxiang in Chengdu. Old-timers want to preserve the cuisine's culinary heritage.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Chengdu chefs and foodies worry the cuisine's roots will be lost to a lack of standards and modern changes as its popularity spreads

CHENGDU, CHINA • The tang of the famed cooking of Sichuan wafts through streets crowded with restaurants. Hot pots of chilli and oil simmer like restless volcanoes. Chicken, rabbit and frog bathe in stews tingling with red and green peppercorns. Favourites such as Pock-Marked Grandma Tofu abound.

But, along with the pungent aromas, a whiff of panic is in the air in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China.

"Sichuan cuisine faces a crisis," said Wang Kaifa, a 71-year-old chef who has been leading a campaign against what he sees as the creeping debasement of the region's celebrated cooking.

He said: "The scene feels like it's booming, but this is a chaotic boom that has had a lot of negatives.

"Finally, they could become a sickness that brings down Sichuan cuisine."

You do have to maintain tradition, but it's not a display in a museum. There's no survival without innovation. ''

CHEF AND GASTRONOMY TEACHER YANG WEN

Such gloom seems surprising. Chengdu has a bustling food scene with thousands of restaurants, from chic newer ones to hole-in-the-wall places called "fly diners". Tourists go there just for the food.

Sichuan cooking has been conquering the world. It has become China's favourite out-of-home dining, sold in countless restaurants that often advertise its trademark chilli heat. It has made inroads in New York, London and other intensely competitive dining cities abroad. But many cooks and food enthusiasts in Sichuan 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.

Rapid growth, especially in the last decade, has debased much restaurant cooking, drowning the tastes and textures of dishes such as fish-fragrant eggplant in gobs of acrid chilli, oil and monosodium glutamate. Menus are often narrowed to dauntingly spicy dishes, such as boiled duck-blood curd and tripe in chilli broth, ignoring the variety and nuance of the cuisine.

"Our tastebuds have been battered into decline so that we demand it to be spicier and spicier," said Shi Guanghua, a food writer and former restaurateur in Chengdu. "Sichuan cuisine has become shallow and flattened."

In Chengdu, people dissect their meals with the reverence that other cities devote to sports teams. Lively debate has broken out, especially about finding the balance between preserving tradition and embracing new ways and new customers.

And in this country where almost every problem prompts a state plan, the province's government last year upgraded its guidelines for standard Sichuan dishes. The guidelines advise, for instance, that "strange-flavoured chicken strips", a cold dish that includes dark vinegar, should use the meat of a one- year-old rooster.

News websites mocked the effort as futile kitchen meddling. But in April, the government announced a plan to award Sichuan restaurants, at home and abroad, Michelin-like ratings - gold, silver and bronze pandas - to encourage standard- bearers for good cooking.

"Shocks from commercialisation and the simplification of tastes have created a crisis," said Shi, who is on a supervisory panel for the restaurant-rating plan. "Sichuan cuisine can't survive without its traditions, but how to preserve them and reinvigorate them at the same time? That's the focus of discussion."

To outsiders, this alarm may seem over the top. But the angst over Sichuan cooking distils wider anxieties about the place of tradition, as China becomes increasingly unmoored from its past.

Some defenders of old-school cooking look to President Xi Jinping of China, known for dining out on cheap steamed buns, who has called for restoring home-grown traditions in politics. They hope to see the same in kitchens.

"Too many of the old ways have gone by the wayside, but the trend now under Xi Jinping has been to restore Chinese traditions," said chef Chen Baiming. "Sichuan food is a part of Chinese culture and we need to protect it."

Early this year, dozens of retired chefs formed the Sichuan Old Chef Traditional Artistry Society to restore time-honoured ways they say are under assault. Its 160 members, most in their 60s and 70s, meet weekly to swop recipes and promote traditional skills.

They gripe about young cooks who use lashings of new ingredients, such as mayonnaise, and recall neglected classics, such as sliced pig kidneys fried in fermented bean paste.

Wang said he was inspired to start the society after watching in dismay while a 30-year-old chef from a five-star hotel added celtuce, also called asparagus lettuce, to kung pao chicken.

Of course, no cuisine stands still. Classic French food evolves, as does every other cuisine. In Sichuan, the question is what elements to preserve and how to change without betraying the culinary heritage.

A camp of chefs hopes to remake Sichuan cooking for urbane middle-class tastes, building on the core of traditional ingredients and techniques. Some have opened modern restaurants that serve recipes with contemporary twists.

"You do have to maintain tradition, but it's not a display in a museum," said Yang Wen, a chef whose restaurant, Lotus Shadow, features refined dishes, such as braised shrimp infused with jasmine tea, that are a world away from the homespun fare favoured by old-school revivalists. "There's no survival without innovation."

Yang, who is also a gastronomy teacher, plans to open a cooking school and research institute in Chengdu, called the Chinese Food Academy and Information Center, to help restore and reinvent local cooking. A mundane dish such as twice-cooked pork, a classic Sichuan dish made from boiled pork belly, could be remade for new tastes, she said. "It's preserving the essence of tradition while meeting modern expectations.

Sichuan cooking is classified as one of the eight great cuisines of China. But its roots are relatively recent. Over several centuries of war, trade and migration, outsiders brought in chillies, fermented bean paste, sugar and other spices, and their own cooking traditions.

These influences melded only several generations ago to create an unusually aromatic and versatile toolbox of flavours.

Sichuan's historic openness to other influences should be seen as a virtue, say some food lovers.

"The truest Sichuan food has only about a century or so of history behind it," said Wang Shiwu, a food critic at Sichuan Gastronomy, a monthly magazine. "The attractiveness of Sichuan food is that it's a big melting pot. Whatever is attractive in your cuisine, I can absorb and adapt it."

In Chengdu, Xiong A'bing, a chef who runs a chain of restaurants specialising in robustly traditional dishes, said people would tire of the race towards spicy novelty.

"We've also felt the many changes in China since 2012," the year Xi came to power, he said. "Now many people, especially those born after the 1970s, are turning back to eat traditional Sichuan food. They're returning to their roots."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Sichuan cuisine facing a crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe