Pixian (郫县), a sprawling county to the northwest of Chengdu, is home to a reconstructed "ancient town (古城镇)," several sites of archaeological significance, and the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine (成都川菜博物馆). Currently, the government is pushing it as one of the top 50 small-sized cities for investment potential.
Pixian was chosen as a site for the museum not only because of the area's rapid development as one of the historical sites around the city (along with Jinsha), according to museum guide Jiang Xuemei, but also because it is home to one of the quintessential components of Sichuan cuisine—douban (bean paste).
In addition to the museum itself, the grounds hold a Kitchen God Ancestral Hall, where devotees are encouraged to pay homage to the kitchen god Zaowang, and an outdoor display of replicas of ancient grain mills and presses (unfortunately, no signage explains any of it). Jiang, whom we've roped into giving us an impromptu tour, whisks us by these, and brings us to the Tea Service & Leisure Hall—the most comfortable room in the complex—where senior citizens sit in big wicker chairs and play chess on oversized boards.
Onward we go, to the actual museum, where the low, low temperature perfectly matches the sterile glass-encased displays. This section of the museum—the only part requiring the RMB60 entrance fee, it should be noted—presents archaeological finds from as early as 475 B.C., mostly various incarnations of dishes, alcohol pitchers, chopsticks, forks, and spoons as well as some larger items such as stoves from the third century. Alongside these, behind the glass are books of authors notable for their contribution to Sichuan cuisine as well as a menu from the first overseas Sichuan restaurant, which opened in New York in the early 1980s.
Texts, all in Chinese, place the objects in an historical context that traces the development of the province's cuisine from the West Han period, when the Bashu people living in the area still ate raw food, to present-day cuisine, culminating in a wall covered in modern-day street-side Sichuan restaurants in Chengdu. Along the way events such as the invention of paocai are highlighted.
The development of Sichuan cuisine, says Jiang, was marked by both innovation and imitation. Two thousand years ago, sweet was the dominant flavor of the food eaten by the then-Shu Kingdom. The most notable shifts occurred when outsiders introduced new ingredients—such as during the Ming Dynasty (late 17th century), when the region's population was rapidly shrinking and the government mobilized people from other provinces to relocate. They brought with them their own crops, including corn, sweet potatoes—and chili peppers, which had recently been brought to other parts of China from South America. Despite Sichuan cuisine's world-renown as spicy, this trait, along with the numbing sensation characteristic of huajiao, which is native to the land, are relatively recent injections to the food.
Another note of interest is that forks, knives, and spoons were present alongside chopsticks hundreds of years ago; and, in fact, at that time, chopsticks were used only to spear meat while forks and knives were used for eating.
The texts track peripheral goings-on in the development of cuisine as well, such as technological advancements in pottery and glazing techniques; trade and commerce (Sichuan was the first place in China to use paper money); and culinary proclamations made in art and literature (see sidebar). Maps also illustrate subtle variations in flavor among different areas in Sichuan; and near the end of the exhibit there is a list of the 38 cooking methods of Sichuan cuisine.
Having opened just this past May, the museum so far isn't attracting hordes of tourists—with a location that could be described as anything but "prime," "convenient," or "easy to find," it's likely to play host mostly to well-to-do cityfolk taking a weekend drive out to the suburbs who want to stroll on the grounds or dine in the "Interactive Demonstration Hall" (read: swank restaurant).
The restaurant offers quite decent food which you can watch chefs prepare in a huge, glass-walled kitchen, but for now the manner of serving is not a very far departure from any ordinary restaurant—inconvenient for parties of one or two people hoping to sample a range of this world-class cuisine; we recommend you go in a large group so you can try a wider variety.
At the moment, everything at the museum, save for select bits of text on the brochure, is in Chinese only. There's also next-to nothing online about the museum in English, so locating it could be a struggle if you don't speak Chinese. Simply touring the grounds and viewing the displays would also be lackluster unless you're a fanatic of this sort of stuff as there would be no way to contextualize any of the artifacts. However, museum director Zhang Jian said that in the near future, English, Japanese, and Korean placards will be added to the exhibits.
Literature & the Culinary Tradition
Over the years, poets have left their mark on Chinese cuisine. Sichuan poets 李白 (Li Bai), 杜甫 (Du Fu), and 苏轼 (Su Shi), also known as 苏东坡 (Su Dongpo), have all earned a mention at the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine. Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, born in central Asia, later living in Sichuan's Jiangyou county, was known for his love of liquor, and his numerous odes to drinking and eating have inspired foodies to name both dishes and restaurants after him. The latter, who also excelled in calligraphy, painting, and cooking, is credited with having accidentally invented the wine-stewed Dongpo Pork. After trying it he was allegedly so impressed with his creation that he immortalized the cooking instructions in three famous lines, contained within one of his poems: "慢著火,少著水,火候足时它自美" ("A slow fire, little water, cooked to the right time it tastes nice").
By bus: from the Jinsha Station, take the 305 to the penultimate stop in Pixian (at the Pixian Bei Men/ 郫县北门). From there you can transfer to the 363 to Gucheng Zhen (古城镇) or take a cab for approximately RMB20 directly to the museum. This is a long bus ride, from one end of the line almost to the other. Allow approximately two hours from the Jinsha Station if going by bus.
Returning: you can negotiate a ride back to the city for approximately RMB80 to return to the city.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 8 ("eat&drink").