When in China, Know the Cultural Do’s & Don’ts of the Sichuan Province

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Ahhh yes, the mystery and magic of China! China‘s Sichuan province is world-famous for its delicious cuisine. For travelers who enjoy eating their way through a trip as well as immersing themselves in local culture, it makes for a top destination. Below is a Q&A with Kristin Addis who traveled there recently.

1. Please tell us a bit about your experience traveling in the Sichuan province of China. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences have you had so far?

I ended up in Sichuan province quite by happenstance after crossing over from Yunnan province, and have since spent five weeks here trekking in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and hanging out in the awesome city of Chengdu, in addition to practicing my Mandarin and hitchhiking a little here and there.

2. What’s one attraction or experience in Sichuan you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?

Most of the trekking along Tibet — when foreigners are allowed in the area — is relatively unknown to most foreigners, especially Mount Four Sisters, which has some spectacular scenery.

3. For those wanting to experience local Sichuan culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?

Most people wanting to experience Sichuan culture can find it by wandering down small side streets and sampling the cuisine. Chances are you won’t know what you’re ordering, but no matter, it is sure to be delicious!

4. No trip to Sichuan would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, what would you recommend they try?

Sichuanese hot pot is world famous. Hot pot is basically a large soup that several people share with all kinds of vegetables and meat inside — and you can plan on seeing every part of the animal swimming in your hot pot. This means if you order a chicken hot pot, the head and feet will be included. Don’t worry, they add extra flavor but don’t have to be consumed.

5. What are some characteristics of typical Sichuan cuisine?

Sichuanese food tends to be spicier than the rest of China, and their hot pot is no exception! It can also be quite a bit oilier, so if you have a sensitive stomach, load up on yogurt and fiber-rich foods before diving in. Also keep a look out for the Sichuanese numbing pepper, which is a pepper corn that will actually make your mouth tingle and feel numb after biting into one. Some people like the feeling and others can’t stand it. I’m part of the latter group.

6. For those who like it spicy, what dish do you recommend?

Frog hot pot, and tell them you want it “la la de.”

7. You mentioned to me prior to the interview that rapid expansion is slowly killing the food culture, with small street vendors losing their jobs to construction. What changes have already occurred and what’s your prediction for the future in terms of Sichuan cuisine?

A lot of mom-and-pop food shops are being moved in order to make way for construction of new buildings as the Chinese government invests more and more in Chengdu. Within the city, it will become harder and harder to find authentic foods. That said, there are several “old style” streets that, though touristy and not exactly genuine, still do serve traditional-style foods from street vendors. Additionally, as with most places, heading to the student areas is a safe bet for finding cheap and delicious street food.

Outside of Chengdu, the surrounding cities are known for having delicious and authentic dishes. Additionally, the food varies a bit as one moves closer to Tibet. Yak is often on the menu, as is a Tibetan style bread with subtle changes depending on who makes it and where in the autonomous prefecture it is ordered.

8. On your China trip thus far you’ve traveled through the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. What were the major differences in the culinary cultures?

I find the food in Sichuan to be much oilier than in Yunnan province. Sesame oil is typically used in cooking, so it imparts a strong flavor in the foods. A lot of the same dishes can be ordered both places but the flavor profile has subtle changes.

9. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, what’s one etiquette rule they should remember to avoid offending locals in Sichuan?

If eating a group meal with locals, always serve them tea and rice — or at least offer — before serving yourself. When clanking glasses around the table, try to make yours lower than those who are older than you — it is a sign of respect. When paying the bill, it’s completely acceptable to wave or shout for the boss (laoban) or waitress (fu wu yuan), but more polite to hand money to them with both hands.

Contributed by Kristin Addis including photo credit.