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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public