How to (Sichuan) spice up your life

'Yúxiāng ròusī' or shredded pork in garlic sauce (left) and 'hóng yóu chāoshǒu', chilli oil dumplings (right) — Pictures by CK Lim
'Yúxiāng ròusī' or shredded pork in garlic sauce (left) and 'hóng yóu chāoshǒu', chilli oil dumplings (right) — Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, Jan 12 — I’ve never been one to venture far out of my comfort zone. I dare say most of us don’t.

Take food, for instance. It’s almost a cliché that my favourite cuisine would be Cantonese simply because my mother tongue is Cantonese. But it’s true. We are who we are. (Some would say we are what we eat.)

Of late, I’ve noticed the typical Chinese fare in my area changing. Stalls selling Cantonese staples such as pork congee with century egg and the indispensable wantan mee are being replaced by newly opened shops offering mápó dòufǔ and dàndàn miàn.

Sichuan cuisine has invaded my neighbourhood.

Inside a typical Sichuan restaurant
Inside a typical Sichuan restaurant

Is it because of the influx of new residents with a penchant for málà flavours ( meaning “numbing” and meaning “spicy”, key attributes of the Sichuan palate)? Or is it just a shifting of trends I’ve been slow to observe before discovering one fine day there isn’t a single grain of Cantonese fried rice to be had?

I could just put my foot down and insist on only having what I’m used to having. Why should I change? There should always be a wantan mee stall, shouldn’t there? I could refuse to eat the new stuff, refuse to try.

My friends, like life itself, have other plans.

DAVID: Hey, we’re on for dinner tonight?

ME: Yup.

DAVID: Let’s go for Sichuan. There’s a new place in your taman.

ME: No.

DAVID: I hear their Sichuan hotpot is super hot. Must try!

ME: No.

DAVID: You love garlic, right? They have this sliced pork dish that’s absolutely smothered with garlic...

ME: No.

DAVID: Cool. I’ll pick you up at 7pm, okay?

ME:

ME: Make it 6pm. And don’t be late.

DAVID: See ya!

'Dàndàn miàn' or Sichuan spicy noodles (left) and mouthwatering 'kǒushuǐ jī', which literally means “saliva chicken” (right)
'Dàndàn miàn' or Sichuan spicy noodles (left) and mouthwatering 'kǒushuǐ jī', which literally means “saliva chicken” (right)

Sometimes we don’t try new things because we’re not open to new experiences. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.

Maybe the first time I tried Sichuan food, I had choked on the numbing spices. It’s easy to build a years-long avoidance based on one’s initial impression. It’s not quite a phobia; let’s just call it a reluctance to give something a second chance.

Friends, of course, are all about second chances. (True friends, at any rate.) Or they simply view your wariness as a lack of familiarity and helpfully take over, making sure to ignore all your objections.

DAVID: Let’s start with kǒushuǐ jī and yúxiāng ròusī. The hóng yóu chāoshǒu, definitely. Dàndàn miàn for carbs.

DAVID: Their signature is the shuǐzhǔ yú, so that also lah.

ME: Too much.

DAVID: Oh, and the wáwá cài too. We need some greens, right?

ME: Way too much...

DAVID: We can always order more if this isn’t enough, ya?

ME: ...

It’s terrifying.

Not the amount of dishes ordered (though there’s that, too) but leaving your comfort zone. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

That is, till the first bite.

The kǒushuǐ jī – cold shredded chicken in a spicy peanut sauce — is as mouth watering as its name suggests. The yúxiāng ròusī garlicky heaven. Hóng yóu chāoshǒu are dumplings elevated to the ninth level of fiery. And on and on.

The málà sensation is there, of course, but there is more than that. Beyond the heat and the feeling as though my lips have been stung by nettles, there is a surprising pungency. There is sour and there is sweet. What have I been missing?

My lips don’t stop tingling till an hour or so after the meal but my curiosity doesn’t abate. Please, sir. I want some more.

Tame the fieriness of 'shuǐzhǔ yú' (Sichuan style poached catfish fillets) with some 'wáwá cài' (baby Chinese cabbage)
Tame the fieriness of 'shuǐzhǔ yú' (Sichuan style poached catfish fillets) with some 'wáwá cài' (baby Chinese cabbage)

Perhaps it’s time to rethink my old routine. Perhaps it’s time to spice up my life.

And who better to shake one up from one’s doldrums and dull pace of life than friends who insist and who inspire?

This reminds me of Xiang Qun, a friend who moved to Taipei after marrying a Taiwanese gentleman and starting a family. We met at a Sichuan restaurant (where else?) and she shared how she always made sure she has enough “me” time to recharge her batteries.

XIANG QUN: on Thursday nights, I have choir practice, and on Saturday, dancing classes.

ME: That’s so packed. How do you find the time, with kids and work and everything?

XIANG QUN: Oh it’s easy!

ME: Well, you make it look easy.

XIANG QUN: At our age, if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

XIANG QUN: Time runs out... very fast!

XIANG QUN: Better to be a làmā (“hot mom”) than a lǎomā (“old mom”), you know?

ME: A làmā who is very málà?

XIANG QUN: YASSS!

XIANG QUN: Don’t I look “hot and spicy” for my age? Hahaha...

ME: Just be careful you don’t end looking like a llama instead of a làmā

XIANG QUN: ...

Lame puns aside, I’m grateful for friends who remind me to embrace the day, to seek out the joie de vivre in everything. After all, one can’t only eat Cantonese fried rice for the rest of one’s life, surely?

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