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
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower