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Sichuan spice

Photo credit: Hua Jiao Blog

Trying to eat vegetarian in China is unnecessarily tricky. It shouldn’t be, truly. The veggie dishes in Chinese cuisine are multiple and delicious. I stuffed myself with so many veggies, fruits, rices, and other non meaty things while I was winding my way up the east coast that it never occurred to me that a vegetarian would suffer trying to find suitable meal choices.

While I was in Chendgu, I met a girl who totally changed my mind. This girl had been on the road for twice as long as me in China, and she told me the most shocking, funny, awful thing ever: When you tell people that you’re vegetarian in China, they serve you rice and lettuce.

Rice. And Lettuce.

I actually laughed when she told me this, then felt sad for her stomach. So sad that I allowed her to drag me to a vegetarian restaurant that night, out of solidarity.

I was down for whatever, food wise. I had sampled a few Sichuan dishes already (including a beer soaked rabbit), and everything was yummy. Plus, most of the American Chinese food is Schezuan (which is just the American spelling of Sichuan) so whatevs. It’s all yums in my tums.

Spoiler: it is NOT all yums.

The Sichuan region of China is famous for having spicy food. Really, really spicy food. The spiciest food in China, to be exact. But whatevs, I’d just spent two years in Korea having my American taste buds blasted to oblivion, so I figured this “spicy” was just code for “whimp-nuggets”.

With my ego inflated, I followed my new friends to the restaurant. We had a slip of paper that said the Chinese character for “vegetarian” (written by the people who worked at our hostel). We pressed this paper against the window, eyebrows pleading. The lady working behind the window nodded.

Loaded up with veggie dishes, we carried our trays into the dining area and started eating. The food was cold, but palatable. I sighed internally and tucked in. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I’d had in China, but it wasn’t half bad.

About five bites in, I noticed a major problem: my tongue was going numb.

I contemplated this, eating more slowly. The numbness spread up to the roof of my mouth, coated my tonsils, and started to travel down my throat. This is when I realized that I must be eating the famous Sichuan flower pepper.

When I said that Sichuan was famous for the most spicy food in China, I should have been more specific. Yes, they are known for eating stupidly spicy stuff. But it’s the combination of numb and spicy that gives Sichuan food its distinct kick. The flower pepper (reportedly) contains the same ingredients as novocaine.

Imagine, putting novocaine in your mouth ON PURPOSE. For the nummy jollies that it brings.

Seriously, try to imagine that.

I was trying to wrap my mind around this thought, when I realized that my mouth was on fire. I mean, I could sense that my lips, tongue, gums, hell, everything felt like they were being eaten away by corrosive acid. The only reason I wasn’t totally panicked was because the sensation was overwhelmed by the medical grade numb-out I had going. This horrifying feeling was coupled with another realization:

What comes in, must go out.

I put my chopsticks down. I mean, I’ve done a lot of ill-advised things for the sake of adventure. But purposefully ingestive numbing, corrosive foodstuff that are guaranteed to numb my bum hole one minute and leave it burning the next - feelings I would have to navigate on a SQUATTY potty - I couldn’t go on. I began chugging water and shoveling rice, attempting to ameliorate the effects.

My friend laughed at me. “Too spicy for you?” She chuckled.

I didn’t wanna share my thoughts with her. She was enjoying the food, and besides, this was the first meal she’d had that didn’t include wilted lettuce. It seemed too cruel to take that away with my own paranoia.

So I just watched her eat.

It was actually kind of funny. I mean, that food was so spicy that despite the fact that it was stone cold, she kept sucking her spit and attempting to cool her mouth. The food, making her tongue more burned and sensitive with each bite, was causing pain. I mean, she was actually saying “ouch”.

This is not a sensation that I list up there with “good food” associations.

I slurped up a chinese medicine drink (a tip I learned from a beijinger - it instantly neutralizes spicy food), and she just kept eating.

When she finally declared herself full, words slipped out. I said,

“You’re braver than me. I’m too afraid of digestive problems to eat that much numb stuff.”

My words fell over her face like a dark cloud as my meaning sunk in. “Oh no!” she said, “why didn’t you say anything earlier?” she said.

“I’m sorry!” I said, “You were enjoying yourself!”

When ran to the 24 hour mart. We bought milk, bread and water. Neutralization was key. Also, I was still starving. I gorged on my snacks, then went to bed, terrified.

Nothing happened.

No burning, numbing digestive issue. A little tummy ache, probably from the entire tube of Chinese rip-off pringles I had bought as my bread item, but nothing more than that.

I know that’s anti-climatic for you, but for me?

Whew, lordy, I was so relieved. I mean, there is no way to escape fire peppers in Sichuan, and if I couldn’t eat them, it was gonna be in for a rough time.

After that, my attempt to avoid flower peppers was purely based on foodie snobbery.

Numb is not delicious, folks. End of story.


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"I'm a new soul, I came to this strange world hoping I could learn a bit 'bout how to give and take." ~ Yael Naim