In China, the residents of Chengdu, the capital of the country’s southwestern Sichuan province, are known as incomparable idlers. Lan, or “lazy,” is the word often used by non-Sichuanese to describe a populace more consumed with the pleasures of mahjong, cards, tea connoisseurship and long, sumptuous meals than with the material rewards of dawn-to-dusk toil.
“We Chengdu ren [work] just enough to be comfortable. We don’t want to waste hours at the office,” says Stephanie Wong, the 30-something director of an experimental learning center at a Chengdu high school, over dinner at one of the city’s newer upscale restaurants. Between bites of Sichuan classics — mapo dofu and liangban bairou, a room-temperature dish of thinly sliced poached pork belly bathed in a chili oil-based sauce — Wong tells me that the city’s residents “want to enjoy life, to have time with our family, to play and, especially, to eat well.”
Easygoing Chengdu lifestyle
The Chengdu ren‘s approach to life supports a sophisticated and diverse food culture, one that’s always been appreciated within China but has only recently begun to be recognized by the rest of the world. In March 2009, UNESCO, citing Chengdu’s “well-developed cuisine,” named it Asia’s first City of Gastronomy (others are Popayan, Colombia, and Ostersund, Sweden).
Chengdu’s dedication to eating well — and the agricultural bounty of Sichuan’s farmlands — is on display at its wet markets. While many of China’s other metropolises, in the course of redevelopment and the pursuit of Western-style “modernity,” are ridding their urban cores of these traditional food emporia, Chengdu is maintaining its own and even building new ones.
Qingyang District’s Da Hong Shichang (Big Red Market) is just one example. Da Hong Market has been in existence for about two decades. (Chinese agricultural produce was sold at government-set prices, and only at state-owned markets, until the early 1980s, when Sichuan became one of the first provinces to introduce free wet markets.) In 2009 it was moved to a scruffy vacant lot a block and a half away to make way for office and apartment towers.
New lease for Da Hong
Earlier this year that lot, too, became a building site. In most other Chinese cities, this would have meant death for Da Hong. But Chengdu’s municipal government, whose dedication to improving the inner city’s quality of life is evident in its effort to clean up waterways and maintain the city’s relatively large number of parks and tree-shaded streets, built Da Hong a new home. Now, the covered market consists of 35 permanent stalls and more than two dozen shops occupying an area the length of a football field.
At Da Hong, abundance is the keyword; upon entering for the first time one can’t help but be struck by the freshness and scope of its offerings. Adding to the amazement is the fact that another wet market almost as large and well-stocked (though not newly built) sits just a 15-minute walk away. And there are many others just like them within the larger center of Chengdu.
White tile-covered benches marching the length of the market are heaped with fruits, vegetables and soybean products. A typical vegetable seller displays more than 15 varieties of mature and “baby” leafy greens (lettuces, morning glory, cabbages, gailan or Chinese broccoli, zhu er genor fish mint, and mustards including the beloved rape or yellow flowering mustard) as well as bundles of blood red carrots, bins of beefeater-look-alike tomatoes, several types of peppers and chilies, yellow and mixed-color corn, baseball-sized globe summer squash, multiple types of radishes, beans (snake, string, French, romano, edamame), cucumbers and bitter melons, skinny Chinese celery, plump and unblemished lotus root, bamboo — fresh and pickled — along with eggplants, potatoes, and leeks, scallions, chives and garlic shoots.
Tofu vendors offer their product fresh (firm, medium, soft), dried and smoked, in the form of cakes, flattened squares, cubes, thin triangles and “sausages.” There are sheets of flexible dou pi, the skin skimmed off the top of vats of boiling soy milk, and firm jellies made of rice flour, yellow beans and konnyaku potato, a tuber commonly used in Japanese cuisine — to slice and eat as a snack mixed with chili oil, black vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and ground huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn). Lao zao, lightly boozy fermented rice, is popular with the elderly and men, eaten straight from the jar or combined with eggs and water for a fortifying “soup.”
Pork is king in Chengdu — evidenced by the nine pork stalls in the center of Da Hong. Ribs and strips of belly and fat hang from hooks suspended over small piles of well-larded minced meat, ready to mix to order with chopped garlic and ginger for stuffing dumplings. Dumpling and wonton wrappers can be purchased from either of Da Hong’s noodle shops (each with more than 10 pastas made on site), but customers not inclined to stuff their own can purchase freshly made specimens from two dumpling masters working at stalls near the market’s entrance.
On the same row as the noodle shops is an enterprise specializing in dried and salted meats and fish. Here one finds the Sichuanese staple la rou, pork belly that’s been seasoned, smoked over pine boughs and air-dried. Those disinclined to spend time in the kitchen can pick up roasted meats and stuffed buns to go. A glassed-in liangban cai shop displays more than 20 prepared cold dishes or “salads” made with ingredients such as fava beans, seaweed, tofu sausage and the crunchy sour root of the zhuer gen plant, all tossed with variations on the soy sauce-chili oil-vinegar theme.
Why, the visitor wonders, is Da Hong Market such an embarrassment of riches? And why, in a city with an already robust population of wet markets, did its officials choose to renew this one?
Da Hong Market’s assistant manager, a skinny man who identifies himself only by his surname of Shu, laughs. “That’s simple! This is Chengdu. We love to eat.”
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.