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.