What started off as a funny idea, sending Dan around Chengdu to try nasty fast-food chains while we jotted down his comments of disgust and he shot a billion self-portraits, eventually turned sour. As we run out of chains the column perverted into us buying Dandoval his regular Mickey D's and Subway meals, and he even somehow cajoled (probably with those creepy anime eyes) us into feeding him salmon at Ikea under the pretense of a fast-food trial.
Public and private opposition to the column, and the image of a well fed Dandoval inside and outside the CHENGDOO team grew in popularity. There was in-fighting, and an editor might have repeatedly threatened to kill off the column. But Dandoval stubbornly resisted calls for editorial and lifestyle reform, suggestions that he learn to cook his own healthful meals and document the process—which, according to some of the feedback we receive, would be an appreciated move by a number of readers.
In the midst of all this, one evening, over a late-night dinner, a manly competition of who had eaten what broke out. Dan boasted of having eaten bear (killed by his uncle), bats, and buffalo, among other wild game. What started as a theoretical culinary discussion morphed into a real challenge when a befriended chef informed us that there are restaurants in Chengdu that serve bamboo rat.
We accepted the challenge (to find it) and then forced Dan to accept the challenge (to eat it). Our Baidu-fu let us down, but after repeated reconnaissance missions to Qingshi Qiao Seafood & Fish Market we found a little dark booth that sells the rodents to specialty and high-end restaurants in Chengdu. We talked to the delivery guys and collected the restaurant's information. Perseverance paid off, and with brilliant rhetoric manipulation we defended against Dan's last-minute attempts to back out of the deal.
It might serve rats, but Langui is a place to come with the cash. The rat dish (竹鼠/zhúshǔ) was not on the menu, but our waiter knew what we were getting at when we finally manipulated the tones enough to mimic Sichuanese pronunciation.
Just before the dish arrived we pulled out the camera to show Dan the images of the live rats we'd taken at the market. "They look like giant hamsters with creepy little hands," he said, visibly shaken after meeting his soon-to-be meat.
But when the dish arrived, the mood shifted again."Actually this doesn't look too bad," he happily remarked, nearly salivating as he tucked his napkin under his chin and armed himself with chopsticks. There was a hint of the familiar, according to Dan: "Fatty meat bits flooded in red oil." The uninitiated could easily have mistaken it for an ordinary pork dish.
Not one to be timid, Dandoval took a big bite. "Tastes a lot less like bat and a lot more like pork. Not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I expected it to be more in the rodent family kind of a texture, but it's not at all. It's very fatty. Very chewy." In some kind of cruel culinary irony, the rat was served in a pot of its own dietary staple, bamboo, which "adds a nice crunchiness to an otherwise very chewy dish."
After more bites later Dandoval decided that the taste itself wasn't anything out of the ordinary: "The key thing is the idea. You're eating this yellow-toothed little beast. But other than that it goes down rather easy. ... The problem with the dish is the more you eat it the more you get tired of its chewy texture."
"Really it was the idea of the rat that was the difficult part to get through," Dan concluded. "The flavor itself is acceptable and the texture was not ideal. ... It tastes like a lot other Sichuan dishes. Nothing too special about it, nothing to write home about. You should still try it just to put checkmarks in your book."
Plenty of culinary traditions have included rat in their cuisines—allegedly, rata de marjal was even part of the original Spanish Paella before it was substituted for the usual suspects.
The bill came down to a hefty RMB500 just for the rat dish. Not cheap by any means, but the alternative is buying a whole live rat at the market for RMB300 and butchering it yourself at home. Or, of course, just skipping the rat tasting altogether—possibly a better idea, given Dandoval's unsolicited post-meal commentary: "Not sure if the rat or something else, but something made me gassy as hell from that meal."
Overall, Langui makes a very professional impression in terms of service, interior décor, and food preparation, and is certainly a place to experiment in the high-end dining category with its menu of meat and seafood dishes prepared in Sichuanese, Cantonese and Hunanese styles.
Which dishes terrify you?
E-mail the name and location of your suggested culinary torture chamber and we might feature it in the future.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62 ("community").
Photos by Dan Sandoval and Joe.