Friday, May 18, 2012

Peanut Chicken in Dujiangyan

Gong bao ji ding is one of the most instantly recognizable Chinese dishes, served up as “spicy chicken with peanuts” in restaurants around the world. History links it to Dujiangyan, a small Sichuanese town just north of the provincial capital, Chengdu, and also to an ancient engineering project that long ago turned this region into one of China’s prime agricultural areas.

Gong bao (sometimes kung po) chicken is named after Ding Baozhen, the Governor of Sichuan in the 1880s (“Gong Bao” was his official title), whose household is said by some to have invented this dish. Others claim that it is, in fact, an old recipe from neighboring Guizhou province, where Ding Baozhen was born, or that it was served up to him at a banquet by an obsequious subordinate looking for favors. It doesn’t really matter which story is true: this stir-fried assemblage of juicy chicken cubes, crunchy peanuts, chopped dried chili peppers, and aromatic Sichuan peppercorns (called huajiao, or “flower pepper” in Chinese), all held together by a malty-sour sauce, is deliciously addictive.
The combination of peppers and huajiao is distinctly Sichuanese, though gong bao chicken isn’t actually a hot dish by local standards. Some Sichuanese food is so fiery that even hardened locals glow crimson when eating it; to watch diners at a back-street night market tucking into innocuously named “boiled beef slices” or a communal, pepper-rich hotpot is to wince in sympathy. After a while, though, this eye-watering diet becomes a necessity, and the Sichuanese justify their pepper cravings on health grounds, claiming that eating them warms you up in winter and helps you perspire during the summer, ultimately cooling you down.
Ding Baozhen is also famous for restoring Sichuan’s agricultural self-sufficiency. Dujiangyan sits where the farmland plains of eastern Sichuan meet the abrupt “foothills” – in reality, steep-sided mountains – of the Tibetan Plateau. Watercourses tumble off these hillsides into the notoriously capricious Min River, which used to cause havoc by alternately drying out or flooding the plains. In 256 BC the Han dynasty governor Li Bing designed a simplelooking collection of dams, dikes, and spillways to channel the river into an irrigation system. Ding Baozhen restored his work, and today’s vast waterways offer spectacular views over the channels and dams to the mountains and forests beyond. In taming the waters, Li Bing created an area of rich agricultural land, thereby granting the people a livelihood, and his efforts are commemorated in the temples of Erwang Miao and Fulong Guan – “Dragon-Taming Hall.”

A Day in Dujiangyan
Dujiangyan town itself is a functional transportation hub, so once you’ve arrived here from Chengdu, there’s no reason to put off heading straight for the riverside parkland surrounding the ancient irrigation works.
MORNING : Head for Lidui Park and admire the main channel from venerable Fulong Hall, then catch a cable car over the Min River or cross more adventurously via the narrow Anlan suspension bridge. Either way you’ll reach Erwang Miao, the Two Kings Temple. Seek out the painted bust of Ding Baozhen in an alcove here, then walk through woodland back to town along the flagstoned Songmao Path, one of the ancient “tea roads” between Sichuan and Tibet.
AFTERNOON : After lunch at one of the many riverside restaurants, head 15 miles (25 km) west to Qingcheng Mountain, a small but sacred Taoist peak. Climb the steep flights of steps through thick forest, pausing along the way to admire some small but beautiful temples and shrines.
EVENING : Return to Chengdu for an evening stroll around the old streets surrounding Kuan Xiangzi, followed by a performance of traditional Sichuan opera.

Getting to Dujiangyan

Dujiangyan is 20 miles (30 km) north of Shuangliu international airport in Chengdu. A train service also runs from Chengdu’s north train station.

Where to stay in Dujiangyan

Dujianyan is short on foreigner-friendly hotels, so it’s best to stay in Chengdu.
Sim’s (inexpensive) is centrally located and offers very friendly, helpful service.
The Holiday Inn Express (moderate) is business-oriented and very used to dealing with foreigners.
The Jinjiang Hotel (expensive) is a Chinese-style luxury hotel downtown.
194 Qintai Road, Chengdu; or check the listings magazine GoChengdu:

Sichuan Pepper

The characteristic Sichuanese taste is mala, literally “hot and numb,” created by combining the spicy heat of chili peppers with the aromatic tingle of Sichuan pepper. Also known as prickly ash, these peppercorn-sized fruits grow on ferociously thorny bushes in western Sichuan – market vendors often hold up scratched hands to prove how fresh their wares are. They contain a volatile oil that creates a weird pins-and-needles sensation in the mouth when eaten. The dried peppercorns are either cooked whole in a dish, as in gong bao chicken (be warned, it’s a bit of a shock when you bite into one) or ground to a powder and sprinkled over everything at the end.
Sadly, the oil’s numbing effect doesn’t age well and peppercorns bought overseas rarely retain enough volatile oil to surprise an unwary diner.

The Best Places to Eat Gong Bao Chicken

Alfresco restaurants in Dujiangyan
For the best gong bao chicken experience in Dujiangyan, head to the host of waterside restaurants lining the overflow channel off Fuxing Road, just outside Lidui Park. Places here specialize in river food – including fresh frogs, snails, and little crayfish, all kept alive in buckets – but also include a broad range of Sichuanese favorites on the menu. The best way to choose a restaurant is to walk around and pick the busiest. The trick to finding a good plate of gong bao chicken (as it lends itself to endless variations, some better than others) is to look for one that includes chicken cubes, peanuts, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili peppers, and is not swamped in chili oil or sticky sauces. The best variations produce a relatively mild, dry dish with sharp, clear flavors. Whichever establishment you end up in, choose an outdoor table (most have awnings to protect you from the elements) and enjoy the setting, with the water racing roughly past along the broad, stone-lined channel. Make sure you check prices as you order, or you might get a shock when the bill arrives.
Around Lidui Park, Dujiangyan; open dawn–dusk daily In Chengdu
The excellent Manting Fan (+86 28 8517 7958; moderate) serves up first-rate gong bao chicken, alongside other Sichuanese favorites such as mapo tofu (soft tofu cubes in a hot bean sauce), smoked duck, dry-fried green beans, “fish-flavored” pork shreds, sweet rabbit threads with steamed buns, and sautéed bamboo shoots. Lao Fangzi (+86 28 8509 8822; moderate) has a similar menu, and their “mouthwatering chicken” is well worth a try.

Gong bao chicken combines chicken, peanuts, hot peppers, and Sichuan pepper with ginger and garlic in a light sweet-sour sauce

Also in China
Baguo Buyi (+86 10 6400 8888; expensive) is the Beijing branch of a Chengdu chain, featuring excellent gong bao chicken, twice-cooked pork, and performances of Sichuan opera to enjoy with your meal.
Chuanguo Yuanyi (+86 21 5836 8826; expensive) does the same job in Shanghai, while in Chongqing, Waipo Qiao (+86 23 6383 5988; moderate) serves some of the best Sichuanese food in town.
Around the World
In London, both the cooking and decor at Barshu (; moderate) are extraordinarily close to an authentic Chengdu experience. New York’s Grand Sichuan chain (; moderate) is well-regarded for staples including gong bao chicken. In Melbourne, aim for Dainty Sichuan (+61 3 9663 8861: inexpensive), a crowded,unsophisticated place that likes its spices.

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