09 June, 2010

Le bruit et l'odeur

Three weeks ago I caught a really bad cold just before going off on holiday for 12 days in China. So I ended in a country reknowned for its cuisine with very little sense of smell.

I joined my two Aunties Lilian and Lilin from Singapore for a few days in Sichuan Province. Sichuan food is famous for its liberal use of the numbing Sichuan pepper along with just as much red hot chilies. One night my aunts and I went for a hot pot in a very very busy and noisy local restaurant, usually a good indicator of good food in China.

Instead of the boiling broth we were expecting to dip our meat and fresh mushrooms in, we were given a big vat of simmering vegetable oil, the colour of which was bright red from the chilies! And with Sichuan pepper pods soaking everywhere in it! Imagine "fondue bourguignonne" in chili oil... We were told by the restaurant staff that the only way to douse the chili flavour was to dip everything we had cooked into a bowl of sesame oil; so no good either for health-conscious eaters.

My aunts quickly gave up. With my stuffed nose, I could hardly feel the chili heat. I did feel the stinging numb of the Sichuan pepper after a while and my lips got burnt by the sizzling-hot food straight out of the vat. We finished the dinner by eating raw cucumbers and Chinese cabbage to cool our mouths down.

I also spent a few hours in a tea shop in Chengdu sampling and buying tea, blowing my nose every 15 minutes to the great amusement of the tea sellers. I was trying to smell the aromas of the dry tea leaves and of the tea infusion to get an idea of their quality. It is rather difficult to taste tea properly with a blocked nose.

On this trip I thus clearly grasped the importance of smell when enjoying food. Some of our food is completely void of any interest if smell is not involved in our tasting of it: vanilla, strawberries, or premium teas and wines, among others.

One good thing of travelling with a blocked nose in China: one is not as much bothered by the cigarette smoke, which is everywhere, nor by the stench of the infamous public toilets.

Le bruit et l'odeur
Zebda, Le bruit et l'odeur, Barclay


  1. You're describing it so well that I now feel as if I'm having a stuffy nose and my mouth burnt. Wondering whether that Sichuan chili pepper is hotter than the tiny Thai chili pepper(Phrik-ki-nu)??

  2. Thai chili pepper makes one sweat and cry and one's mouth is so overwhelmed by the taste one can't feel any other taste.
    Sichuan pepper is different: it takes a few minutes rather than a few seconds to become effective. Then one's mouth gets all numb as if having a really big hangover: the tongue seems to expand in the mouth, the lips feel like they've been blown up like a balloon. One can still eat but the mouth is so numb one can't feel any kind of taste.
    Food historians say that before America was "discovered" by Christopher Colombus, there were no chilis in Europe or Asia. Thais were then using a spice related to the Sichuan pepper before the 16th century.