"What should I bring back?" Perhaps the most-asked question by foreigners departing from the shores of China, it's also one of the most difficult to answer well. While many travelers are content to bring back cheap CDs and DVDs, Chinglish-emblazoned T-shirts, and whatever inexpensive tea's available at the supermarket, some folks prefer to fill their suitcases with authentic trophies of their travels. With the latter in mind, we've compiled this list.
While to many foreigners, baijiu comes in only one flavor (evil), connoisseurs make much ado about separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and Sichuan has held a 2,000-year-long reputation as one of the country's top producers of the transparent spirit. A number of top-label distilleries reside in the province, including the 500-year-old Chengdu Swellfun Distillery (水井坊), producers of Quanxing Daqu (全兴大曲); Wuliangye (五粮液), Luzhou Laojiao (泸州老窖), Langjiu (郎酒), Jiannanchun (剑南春), and Tuopai Daqu (沱牌大曲) are other brands of good repute. And not only is Sichuan's liquor among the best, there's also a lot of it: In 2007, the province produced 860,000 tons liquor, exceeding the output of Shandong, traditionally the country's largest liquor producer. Notable Sichuanese cities for liquor production are Chengdu, Gulin, Luzhou, Mianzhu, Shehong, and Yibin.
Sichuan is the birthplace of tea and today is China's second largest tea producer. The province's output encompasses not only green and black teas, but less common yellow, white, and organic teas as well. The most notable among them are the eight varieties of Mengding Mountain tea, including Ganlu ("honey dew" 蒙顶甘露); and E'mei Mountain's Zhuyeqing ("bamboo leaf green" 竹叶青) and E'rui (峨蕊), both of which were developed by Buddhist monks. In general, high-quality tea leaves appear tightly rolled when dry, and when steeped produce a translucent liquid free of foam and impurities. Reputable tea shops will steep samples so that customers can try before they buy.
For the culinary artists among your friends and family, what could be better than an assortment of authentic seasonings used to create one of the world's most famous cuisines? No package would be complete without "the soul of the Sichuan dish" and the key seasoning in hotpot, Pixian douban (郫县豆瓣). This spicy sauce made from fermented broad beans is widely available in small packages at supermarkets. Another Sichuan trademark is Langzhong's Baoning vinegar (保宁醋), the variety of that quintessential Chinese kitchen component that Sichuanese swear by. Baoning's 400-year-old blend of fermented bran, corn, rice, and over 70 traditional Chinese medicinal herbs has made a reputation for its alleged medicinal properties; the herbs are said to be good for the stomach, and, according to legend, nobody in the village surrounding the vinegar factory has been diagnosed with cancer in decades. It's available in any shop in its distinctive red-labeled bulbous bottle. Also popular are Sichuan peppercorns (花椒), dried chili peppers, yacai (芽菜), and prepared spice packages for particular Sichuanese dishes, including Mapo tofu, fish-flavored eggplant, and hotpot. These are available at most large supermarkets in convenient single-serving packages, many of which include preparation instructions in English.
Packaged foods that simultaneously delight and frighten most Westerners—chicken feet, beef "candy," pickled peanuts—can be found in supermarkets across the country, but for a real Sichuan treat, pick up a box of Longyan Su (龙眼酥). The Sansu (三苏) brand of the flaky, pastry-like snack has been added to the city of Meishan's intangible cultural heritage list, and the product remains one of the city's best-selling tourist foods. Longyan su is widely available in four varieties: black sesame, mung bean, rose, and salt and pepper.
With all that tea and liquor, something nice to serve it in would make a nice gift, and Sichuan is home to two unique types of handcrafted tableware: Yi lacquer (彝族漆器), produced in the Liangshan region, and bamboo over porcelain (竹编瓷胎), produced mainly in Pingle. The former yields a colorful, lightweight tableware traditionally used for wine; today, tea sets and decorative items are also made. Bamboo over porcelain is a technique unique to the Chengdu region that involves weaving hair-thin filaments of bamboo, mostly from Qionglai Mountain, over porcelain pottery.
The rich silk tapestries of the Shu Kingdom are so deeply engrained in Chengdu culture that the city is referred to as "the Brocade City," and the character for "brocade" (锦, pronounced "jin") figures all around the city—Jinjiang, Jinli, Jinxiu. Sichuan is home to China's earliest silk industry, and the groundbreaking methods used in the painstaking production of the brocades date back thousands of years. In modern times, the Shu Brocade Institute has been charged with the task of preserving the ancient production techniques and promoting the product, and to that end has established a museum boasting an original Qing-dynasty two-person weaving loom and several retail shops selling brocades and embroideries. Perhaps one of the most stunning Sichuanese souvenirs, at maximum production speed of six centimeters per day, they don't come cheap: A swatch can cost upwards of RMB10,000.
This article was researched by Marvin Tan & Chih Tseng and originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 25 ("Sichuan"). Photo by "the thing" .