Would you prefer Chilli or 'Worms' in your Soup?
The sun-dried chilli used in many Sichuanese dishes is a short, very plump and round looking red chilli called 'chao tian jiao' (or 'facing heaven chilli' - by its very name, I can only hazard that eating these chillies produce such fiery results which causes one to look up to the heavens as one gasps for relief!). Various ingredients ranging from vegetables, mushrooms, seafood, meat slices and offal (beef tripes being one of them) are dipped into the hot boiling broth (spicy or non-spicy, your preference), cooked, scooped out and eaten. We discovered to our delight that dipping the ingredients which have been cooked in the spicy chilli broth, subsequently in a dish of fragrant sesame oil supplied to each diner, allows our sensitive untrained tongues to be coated with the sesame oil thus preventing drastic chilli 'burns' and lengthening our dining enjoyment and tolerance for this meal.
As we left the dining room in the restaurant, we realized that our 'mala huoguo' had been specially ordered by our tour-guide with the separate non-spicy chicken broth to cater to our Singaporean tastebuds. In the outer dining area, our noses were assaulted by strong chilli aromas and as we pass each dining table, the Sichuanese locals' firepots were filled entirely with the hot chilli broth (none of that non-spicy chicken broth for them). It's a pity that I forgot to take a pic of the same as I rushed out of the restaurant to avoid being overcome by chilli fumes!
Moving from the spicy, on another night in Chengdu, we dined at Qin Shan Zhai Restaurant at No. 247 Marquis Wu Street, Chengdu (Tel: 028-85098875) famous for their chinese herbal cuisine. Confirmed reservations are required especially if you're having the specialty herbal duck soup that has been brewed for hours with the expensive cordyceps ('tung chong cho' in Cantonese, literally 'winter worm grass') [for the uninitiated, this is the brown worm-like stuff floating in the foreground of the pic]. Cordyceps are reputed to rejuvenate and restore health and vigour, are supposedly winter worms which undergo a metamorphosis to become leaves in summer, and shrivel up into root-looking twigs in autumn. Whatever their origins and supposed health benefits, these little 'worms' together with more than 10 different herbs and spices, definitely enhanced the flavors of the duck soup. Unlike the chilli hotpot, we drank bowls and bowls of this absolutely delicious soup!
After all that spicy cuisine in Sichuan, returning to Singapore and dining on simply-cooked vegetables was most appetizing - that feeling may be best portrayed by pic below of panda's breakfast on bamboo shoots (shot at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base).