So, I’m an obsessive little locavore when I travel. My love for food and travel combine full-force, often resulting in my eating five to seven meals a day all for the sake of trying it all. This is sometimes to my detriment, as it’s happened more than once that it becomes physically impossible to walk after stuffing myself to the gills. I am so disgusting.
So to honor this passion, I present you with a culinary tour of Western Sichuan, where some of my most memorable meals to date took place. These little mountain villages served up made-to-order anything and everything. Yak meat dumplings, mapo dofu, fiery dumpling soup, yak butter tea, stir-fries to die for, hand-picked veggie medlies perfectly flavored with Sichuan spice.
This is part one of a three-part installment. First stop: Kangding. Stop two: Moxi. Final stop: Chengdu.
Meal One: Beautiful Breakfast Baozi
Description: Thomas and I awoke early that morning, eager to begin our hike up Paoma Shan and tour the town of Kangding. At 7:30 a.m., though, the streets were empty. We searched for a good 15 minutes for a place to buy food for the day, and eventually stumbled upon a tiny restaurant with an orange awning that was clearly the hopping breakfast joint in town. We took a seat at a rickety table. When a server approached us seconds later, we simply pointed to the table next to us, implying that we wanted whatever they had — a heap of pillowy dumplings (baozi (BOW-ZUH)– which is different than the steamed dumplings we get in Chinese restaurants here. They’re made with steamed bread). Along with our two-tiered plate of 14 baozis, we each got a bowl of rice porridge (basically the juices/water that rice and other grains have simmered in), and pickled ginger. It seemed there was only one breakfast option here, as each table got the same spread. All for a grand total of 13 yuan. (Less than two dollars). The dumplings were stuffed with yak meat, heavenly heavenly yak meat, and were nicely spiced — tempered for a gentler morning meal. Just enough garlic, with Sichuan zest that didn’t make my tongue feel inflamed.
Meal Two: The Rockin’ Tibetan Restaurant
Description: If you read my previous post about Re Tibetan Restaurant, you understand just how much we enjoyed our meal there. SO much so, we decided to try to go back the following evening. I know — such a foodie faux-pas to return to the same restaurant — but let that be a testament to just how wonderful the meal was. However, when we got back, the servers tried to take advantage of our Western-ness by presenting us with much newer, much more expensive menus than the night before! How dare they try to taint our memorable meal! I successfully defeated my rage and pitiful Chinese and expressed to this heinous woman that we had been there the night before and were given different menus, with prices about 50 percent cheaper! She pretended that she didn’t believe/understand me, but the jig was up. She looked sheepish, and started laughing nervously with her co-workers. Finally, the youngest of the bunch presented us with the tattered menus we recognized from the night before. We had won, yes, but something had changed about that place. It was no longer the same in our eyes. I wanted to cry. (Okay — that’s a lie. But I’m trying to convey just how crushed we were to learn of Re Tibetan Restaurant’s corrupt underbelly!) We defiantly stormed out of the restaurant. HA!
Only problem was — we were still famished and we were still craving, YEARNING, for Tibetan food. We walked aimlessly like dejected puppies for a block or two, until I looked up (taking my sad gaze off my dragging feet) and saw a cute little Tibetan tea house. “Too bad they don’t have food in there,” I said to Thomas.
But Thomas, the literate genius that he is, read the sign about three feet above the door, which triumphantly read “Tibetan Restaurant.” Oh. Oh!!!!
We basically galloped inside and took a seat along the benches that lined the walls of the restaurant so that everyone was sort of facing each other, eating on tables that went up to your knees. This place was hoppin’. Thomas and I squeezed next to a Tibetan grandmother (with her cute little grandson) adorned in a bright blue dress with her long hair woven intricately with a ribbon and tied in a bun. Across from us were two swankily dressed local dudes with gold jewelry and sporting the typical Kangding sport coats. Their 80s-style hair was gelled enough to properly withstand any amount of mountain wind they may encounter. (See photo above!) It must be the cool thing to do to talk on your cell phone while you’re eating in a small restaurant, because that is what quite a few of these guys did.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the food yet, but for us the real joy of this meal was having a front-row seat to the diverse segments of the Kangding population. Part ethnic Tibetans refusing to let go of their culture, part 80s throwback fashion, part “We are the Future” modern Chinese. And a host of other subcultures I probably didn’t pick up on. The difference in clothing between mothers and daughters was fascinating. Many women chose to still wear more traditional Tibetan clothing, while their kids — just the next generation down — dressed essentially like the students I taught in Dalian — that modern megatown on the complete other side of China. It felt a world away.
But now I will talk about the food. We decided on beef baozi, two orders of beef and yak butter rice, and a pot of Tibetan butter tea — this time sweetened. The beef was quite tender, and the yak butter made the rice smooth, soft, creamy and heavenly. The sweetened butter tea was a great choice for this meal, because this time we didn’t have to battle piquante curry sauce and the like. We slowly ate our food, mostly because it was ridiculously rich, but also to soak up the culture. We got a lot of stares, which made me nervous because I’m a messy eater, but we were staring right back.
We asked one of our snazzy fellow diners to take a picture of us. We wanted to capture the moment. After being treated like tourists, i.e. prey, at the other Tibetan restaurant, it was a welcome experience to be treated a little bit like one of the locals. Or at least dine shoulder-to-shoulder with them.