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It’s been two weeks of cycling through China’s Qinghai province, and the food selection is slim. The majority of the province sits on the vast Tibetan Plateau, well above the tree line in conditions too harsh for significant cultivation. Yaks graze on well-trampled grass as far as the eye can see, with white yurts and colorful prayer flags dotting the hillsides and each summit pass.

By Chinese standards, six million inhabitants in the country’s fourth-largest province make Qinghai practically deserted. For long stretches, only nomadic yak herders can be spotted between the tiny villages. Stopping for a roadside lunch in the small, isolated towns inevitably means a bowl of either mutton or yak chopped-noodle soup (羊肉面片, yángròu miàn piàn or 毛牛肉面片, máo niúròu miàn piàn). Served up in a tomato-chili broth, it’s a tasty meal, but repeated daily, it inevitably becomes tiresome. Additional ingredients sometimes includes julienned zucchini or green peppers, depending on the remoteness of the particular town and their staggered vegetable shipments. After just one week, we’re eagerly awaiting more fruitful pastures, and Sichuan province, located just to the east on our route, is a culinary paradise.

The foods of Sichuan province (川味菜, chuān wèi cài), known as the “breadbasket of China,” offer the variety of a truly blessed and diverse landscape. As the elevation drops, the temperature warms up and staple crops and vegetables replace the vistas of empty grasslands. Every tiny patch of level land in the mountain gorges is used to grow cabbage, corn, fruit and more.

To get a taste of this bounty, we alter our route arriving into Chengdu, the provincial capital, to include the Sichuan Culinary Museum (川菜博物馆, chuāncài bówùguǎn), located on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis. As we turn off the main road, our hunger gets the better of us. We don’t often find museums dedicated to food, but if it’s anything like grocery shopping, we know better than to go on an empty stomach.

A roadside sign for the area’s classic dish, dàndàn miàn (担担面), entices us into a converted garage-diner, completely open to the busy road. The noodles, originally sold by roving vendors carrying their ingredients on a long bamboo pole (dan) through the hills of Chongqing, are nowadays found at most humble restaurants.

The Huang family opened up shop in 2007, and now three generations can be found helping out (the youngest is only eight, but he was on summer break). We’ve come post-lunch rush, so just the signature dàndàn miàn is available. It arrives in its spicy chili oil broth, and the deeper into the bowl we eat, the more our mouths tingle. The generous helping of crushed Sichuan peppercorn works its way into every crevice of our mouths. Like wearing 3-D glasses to the movies, the peppercorns’ numbing sensation brings a new dimension to the many Sichuan dishes it is found in. In the broth, chopped green onions mingle with minced pork, peanuts and sesame paste. The bowl is topped with a seasonal local green – in this case Chinese water spinach (空心菜, kōngxīncài), and a healthy dollop of chicken essence powder, a flourish not always found outside the province. Mrs. Huang suggests a serving of pig’s snout sausage, and of course we say yes. It’s fatty but flavorful, and a welcome break from slightly gamey yak.

Find their shop just before kilometer marker 90 on Chenghuan Lu, near Highway 213 (国道213) – there is no visible address or phone.

Finally arriving at the museum, we find ourselves taken through the culinary history of the region. Archaeological finds dating from more than 2,000 years ago are displayed, as well as a demonstration area to show the fermentation steps for the area’s famed chili bean paste (辣豆瓣酱, là dòubàn jiàng), which is ubiquitous in Sichuan cooking.

The museum is worth a visit and doubles as a cooking school, but like many museums in China, it needs updating and a continued push from authorities to remain relevant and informative. A wall display of multilingual tour guides on offer is “from before,” the attendant tells us, so for more details beyond the Chinglish-laden displays, you may want to hire a private guide.

Back in Shanghai, options for Sichuan cuisine abound, but in the spirit of continued travel, we head a bit farther afield to get our dàndàn miàn fix, taking the ferry across the Huangpu river into Pudong, a district in the eastern part of the city. There, one family is slowly building an empire that’s worth its weight in peppercorns. With three humble locations in Pudong, it’s a noteworthy respite from the endless corporate chains and Western restaurants that tend to populate the “new” side of the city.

Xiaochu Mian, or Little Kitchen Noodles, is a bastion of authentic and affordable flavors. Started in 2008 by the Xue family, who come from Chengdu, the restaurant prides itself on serving up authentically spicy dishes. Indeed, the Shanghainese here are happily sweating it out as they slurp. Seeing a foreign face, the cashier may ask if you want less spicy (微辣, wēi là) or numbingly spicy (麻辣 má là); ask for má là to get as close as possible to the real deal. For 15 RMB, the generous helping of noodles features a bit more minced pork than the Sichuan version and baby bok choy as the green vegetable of choice. We also love the cold beef noodles (麻辣牛肉面, málà niúròu miàn) for a bit of contrast. Beef strips marinated in hot crushed peppercorn sit atop a cool bed of wheat noodles with a sprinkling of green onions. If you can’t decide between the noodle dishes, the spicy beef is also available alone as a side dish. Don’t forget a throwback mini glass bottle of Coca-Cola – it’s just the thing to tame the heat.

Kyle Long

Published on October 01, 2013

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