Although I had heard that Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is also the gastronomical center of China, I never fully understood the extent of how amazing and diverse its cuisine can be until I had the pleasure of dining at Yu’s Family Kitchen.
Sichuan cuisine is famously bastardized in the United States, where I’m from. It’s even called differently – Szechuan – based on the older Wade-Giles romanization system, and has taken on its own persona as “Swechuan” or “Sezwan” cuisine to the average American. I cringe at American-Chinese interpretation of classic Sichuan dishes such as gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁 or kungpao chicken), which often lack the characteristic Sichuan dried red chili and instead is littered with carrots, celery, and red peppers – none of which can replace the simplicity of chicken, peanut, and Chinese leek, with flavors of Sichuan peppercorn and chili to give it a punch.
Even after spending almost eight years in and out of China, I assumed a Sichuan meal meant one thing – losing a few tastebuds and shedding a few (okay, a lot) of tears whenever venturing into the foray of 麻辣 (ma la – the numbing, fiery taste characteristic of Sichuan food). When I was a kid, I couldn’t even handle typical black pepper on a meal. My father – whose expertly-made food is inspired by his roots in Shanghai and upbringing in Taiwan – would always make a dish for the rest of the family chocked with spice, but reserve a small portion sans spice for me (also referred to as the “CA” or candyass dish. Where does he come up with these things? Who knows).
When I made a stop recently in Chengdu for some government meetings, I knew I just had to eat at Yu’s Family Kitchen, particularly after salivating after ready my friend Jenny Gao’s recount and mouth-watering pictures. However, when I phoned for reservations, I was highly dismayed that all of the fame and attention Chef Yu Bo has rightly gained for his craft and impeccable food has meant that prices have sky-rocketed to 1000 RMB each for 2 people (around $150USD); 600 RMB each for 4-7 people; and 300 RMB each for 8 or more. Being a newcomer to Chengdu, I knew it would be next to impossible to round up eight friends for a meal. So I took to social media and put out a blast to see if anyone in Chengdu would be around and want to join – and it worked! It’s always more fun to meet new friends over delicious food.
Anyways, enough dilly-dallying. Now on to the food and the Chef himself. We were immediately greeted at our table with a collection of 16 vegetarian cold dishes. Our server, Yu Jie, divided the dishes into four seasons by color, taste, and seasonality of the ingredients. These included delightful morsels such as: preserved quail egg, wasabi-infused celery rose petals, March gourd (a local gourd that is harvested in March), a dehydrated and then steamed eggplant, and pickled ginger. Each one was meant to represent a distinct flavor of Sichuan cuisine, which is actually more diverse and complex than its 麻辣 (ma la), numb and spicy reputation would suggest.
And this is Chef Yu Bo’s point – to show a different side of Sichuan cooking. We got the opportunity to sit and chat with him after our meal. We started by telling him our favorite dishes – for me, it was his delicate, rich steamed egg dish, which was infused with a comforting chicken broth and accented with a salty minced pork. He seemed quite proud of his signature dish, a tea-smoked duck consumed a la Peking duck style with a steamed bread pancake, scallion, cucumber, and his own less-sweet and sticky version of a 甜面酱 (sweet plum sauce). Chef Yu said that foreigners tend to gravitate toward this dish. He was also quite proud of a fish dish that featured a lightly steamed local white fish that was melt-in-your mouth tender, steeped in a delicate broth and meant to be dipped in a tangy ginger-vinegar sauce for contrast. Chef Yu says that in Sichuan, this dish is often covered in chili oil and peppercorn, but he prefers to serve the dish this way – unadulterated, much to the dismay of many local Sichuanese.
Chef Yu is a native of Chengdu, where he trained in a state-owned restaurant for 10 years. He then started experimenting with Sichuan flavors in 1995, aiming to show a more multi-faceted version of the cuisine.
“Actually, Sichuan is an immigrant province, with people from many different provinces, minority groups, and regions all living together,” he explained. “So they brought with them all sorts of varied flavors.”
While Chef Yu laments too many Chinese chefs have come to rely on cheap ingredients to boost profits, he pays a premium for the quality ingredients he uses in his food. The crocodile in the Chinese yam and crocodile soup comes from Guangzhou; the tender, earthy ‘mushroom’ bamboo shoots come from Jiangxi province; the cordyceps sinensis that is commonly thought to have medicinal properties of course comes from Yunnan, as do his playful take on a 干巴 (gan ba, which is usually shredded, dried beef or pork), which uses mushrooms instead. He spends time discovering new flavors, spending hours with his wife (pictured below) at markets, and experimenting with ingredients often recommended to him. As a result of the high price he pays for the best ingredients, Chef Yu allows for the food’s 纯 (chun), natural flavor, shine through.
“Other Chinese chefs rely on MSG or artificial ingredients to flavor food. I don’t use these at all,” Chef Yu said.
I can see why Chef Yu Bo has become a rising culinary star. Not only does he elevate Chinese food – playing on classical dishes and flavors in new and interesting ways, but he’s also quite a character – lively, funny, and chatty. He travels quite frequently to the U.S. and Europe to showcase his work as well as learn from others, something he says, “is essential” to his craft.
Thirty-plus dishes later, and I’m completely stuffed and satisfied, having been in the comfortable yet expert hands of Chef Yu, who has changed my mind and altered whatever preconceptions of what Sichuan cuisine is. No, this is what it should be.