City Life Chengdu: China revives its imperial past with food revolution

SICHUAN PROVINCE is famous across China for its mouth-burning, eye-rolling chillies. Cauldrons packed with the tiny red pods bubble everywhere, from roadside pit stops to steamy modern restaurants and family kitchens.

The Sichuanese developed a fiery attitude to life in general. In 1966, when China plunged into the disastrous Cultural Revolution, it was Sichuan that led the way in mass persecutions. And now, as the latest revolution brings economic freedoms to the masses, it is Sichuan that is leading a culinary renaissance. Chengdu, the provincial capital, is the home of China's best cookery school.

A degree at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine requires tens of thousands of hours of chopping practice and mastery of thousands of recipes, but it translates into access to some of the best jobs in the rapidly expanding restaurant business.

A few years ago, grabbing a bite after 8pm was a challenge. Even restaurants that catered to the tourist trade were staffed by surly waitresses. Now incomes have risen sharply, and there are restaurants on every street corner. Even tiny townships boast an eating establishment or two. The sector is growing at a rate of more than 10 per cent a year.

The food revolution prompted Lu Yi, vice-president of the Sichuan school, to abandon a medical career in favour of food. With the going rate for a well-trained chef hovering at around four times the average wage, Mr Lu has three applicants for each of his 1,600 places.

Mouth-watering smells of chilli pork and twice-cooked Mandarin fish waft down to his office from the cooking labs. A peek into the classes reveals first-year students getting to grips with the peppers and spices needed to run every Sichuan kitchen. Upstairs, teachers are demonstrating Western pastry techniques and the art of creating a perfect dough stick .

Lu and his students point to China's lengthy obsession with food as a guarantee for their future. Cooking was elevated to a fine art during the Zhou dynasty, from the 11th to 3rd centuries BC, when the imperial kitchen boasted a staff of more than 2,000. They turned out a vast range of dishes from minced beef to diced fish to dog, pheasant and hare.

The dynasty also developed a complex system of complementary and opposing tastes - sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. These Five Tastes remain the basis of Chinese cooking to this day, although four major regional cuisines, from Sichuan, Shanghai, Peking and Canton, emerged. Right up until the Communist revolution in 1949, master chefs jealously guarded the secrets of how they balanced the Five Tastes. An apprentice had to prove his loyalty often through decades of menial tasks in the kitchen.

The fine art of food was brought to a grinding halt by the Communists. As China progressed through the political purges and economic disasters of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, the art of cooking fell by the wayside. The Communists often persecuted high-profile chefs for their bourgeois past.Food was scarce and state- sanctioned restaurants were few and far between.

Only when Deng Xiaoping, a Sichuan native, came to power in the early 1980s did the position slowly start improving. Deng, who was addicted to the hot and spicy cooking of his home region, frequented Peking's most famous Sichuan restaurant, in a former prince's palace near the Forbidden City. But the forces of economic reform that he unleashed gradually brought down his favourite establishment, as competing Sichuan restaurants proliferated all over the capital.

China has moved on so much that now a Hong Kong entrepreneur has set up a members-only club on the site. It costs pounds 10,000 a year for the opportunity to eat as China's past leaders once did.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas