Hammer, sickle, square and compass.
Taking a momentary change of pace, this post is going to be focussed on food. Not just any food, however; but rather a certain backstreet restaurant in China, presided over by the devil herself. In fact, I considered adding this report to my Dark Tourism section… but while dark tourism tends to deal with death and suffering en masse, the only suffering featured here will be my own.
Qingdao is home to the Mount Qingdao Fort Museum, the Fushan tunnels and Zhongshan bunkers, as well as hosting an annual beer festival sometimes referred to as the ‘Asian Oktoberfest‘. The famous Tsingtao Brewery can be found on Beer Street, which is adjacent to Wine Street, and not far from where I was staying – beside the Korean district at Coffee Street. Qingdao also features what is – by far and away – the spiciest food I have ever tasted.
Located in the eastern province of Shandong, Qingdao is not typically known for spicy food. The famous Shandong cuisine tends to incorporate two main styles; Jinan style is often oriented around soups, while Qingdao’s Jiaodong style makes good use of the coast with a range of light, aromatic seafood dishes.
Most notorious in China for its use of chilli, is the cuisine that originated in the Sichuan province (a name formerly Westernised as ‘Szechwan’ or ‘Szechuan’). I’ve been to Sichuan, and although I sampled some excellent spiced foods there, none of it quite compares to the ferocity of a little back-street restaurant in Qingdao… going by the name of ‘Sichuan Outside Sichuan’.
I should probably explain at this point, that I have something of an addiction to chilli.
The first time I visited ‘Sichuan Outside Sichuan’, I had just flown in from Thailand; where, bizarrely, I found it very difficult to get strong, spicy food. While chillies feature heavily in Thai cuisine, the locals seem convinced that their spiced dishes are inedible to farang . I learnt phrases such as ‘gin pet dai’ (‘I can eat spicy food’) and ‘krap pet pet’ (‘spicy-spicy please’), but to no avail. The chef being apparently afraid of killing me, I would always find curries dissatisfyingly toned down. Other times they’d serve a bowl of ‘nam prik pao’, a chilli paste, alongside my meal – but refuse to mix the two themselves. The spiciest food I ever tried in Thailand was at a cookery school in Chiang Mai; I had to make it myself.
With this in mind, I arrived in China gustatorially frustrated, and perhaps not without a certain degree of complacency. I was soon to be put in my place however, as the Chinese, unlike the Thais, don’t pull their punches when it comes to poisoning foreigners.
‘Sichuan Outside Sichuan’ can be found at ShiChang YiLu 20, close to Qingdao’s Bavarian Quarter. It’s not much to look at from the outside, just a small shop front dotted with plastic buckets full of live crabs, lobsters and even squid. Inside, down a short flight of steps it opens up into a small tiled room: five tables, a fridge and a corner bar.
The demon was waiting for us when we arrived; a small Chinese woman with mischievous eyes, her hair shaved into a flat mohican and dyed white as bone. It has been a different colour on each of my subsequent visits. She welcomed us in, as she singled out the first-time visitors. There was an initiation test, she explained in Chinese, fetching a small bottle and a toothpick. The demon proceded to pluck a drop from the bottle and held the moistened toothpick towards me, gesturing for me to open my mouth.
I recognised the label – it was Dave’s Insanity Sauce, a brand I’ve tried before which weighs in at around 180,000 Scovilles .
I took the proffered sample gladly, and, mustering up all my willpower I kept a completely blank face: thus depriving the devil of her anticipated pleasure. She was visibly crestfallen, but seemed to take this as a challenge.
(Later on I wondered if perhaps I should have screamed, cried and attempted to tear my tongue out by its root, in order to save myself from what was to come.)
The first dish to be served, clearly a house favourite, was a plate of chilli chips. The platter seemed almost to glow, consisting of roughly 50% fried potato chips and 50% dried chilli husks. On its way to the table, a few splashes from an unlabelled bottle were added for good measure.
At ‘Sichuan Outside Sichuan’, if you can consume a plate of chilli chips in less than three minutes your whole party eats for free. A selection of polaroid pictures on the wall displayed the sweaty faces of those who had survived the dish, although we were told that nobody had yet achieved a time of three minutes. I accepted the challenge.
I wasn’t a long way into the chips, when I decided that three minutes was going to be out of the question. It’s one thing to eat food heavily flavoured with chilli, but quite another to consume an entire plate of chilli pieces. The restaurant served cold, bottled milk, and I took one. Usually milk is best avoided in China, as some of the larger dairy plants have been found to use carcinogenic chemicals in the pasteurisation process; as my throat began to blister though, I felt like cancer was the least of my concerns.
More dishes were served: smoked wild boar with mange tout and chilli; fresh crab with chilli and water chestnut. By alternating between the plates I was able to keep eating, until, roughly three quarters of the way through the chilli chips, I was hit by the urge to vomit. Making a swift exit to the restaurant’s facilities – a dirty ceramic squatter at the end of an unlit back corridor – I leant over the sink for a while, throwing handfuls of cold water on my face. While my digestive system had placed itself onto evacuation mode, my mouth and throat seemed to have rebelled, and were refusing to handle the toxic substance again. There was a stabbing, twisting pain in my belly, jostling for attention over the tender, burnt tissue higher up.
By the time I got back there was another course being served; the restaurant’s notorious ‘Numbing Duck’.
This particular recipe was seasoned heavily with ‘Hua-Jiao’, a cousin to what we in the West would call Sichuan pepper. These little seeds, although looking much like green peppercorns, have an altogether different effect.
The numbing sensation caused by Hua-Jiao has led to their incorporation into traditional forms of Chinese medicine; often being used for a local anaesthetic in dental procedures. Writing in On Food and Cooking, chef Harold McGee likens the sensation to “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue”, while suggesting that Hydroxy-alpha sanshool, the bioactive component in the pepper, causes, “a kind of general neurological confusion”.
The plate between us was piled high with the green seeds, chunks of roast duck just visible here and there. Soon my lips and mouth had turned completely numb, to the point where I couldn’t even feel my finger in my mouth. The feeling was also spreading into my cheeks, leaving behind a strange buzzing sensation.
Strange though the experience may have been, it did however numb the fire of the chillies. I finished off the plate of chilli chips, before starting on the next dish – an assortment of chicken feet and wings, again piled into a mountain of chilli husks.
Thirty minutes and half a pint of milk later, we left the restaurant; I had managed to clear every plate put in front of me, much to the amusement of our satanic host. Perhaps more surprising, I was feeling remarkably well… in spite of the occasional dribble of saliva that seeped unbidden between my senseless lips. In fact, the endorphin rush from the chillies had put me onto something of a high, and I swaggered exuberantly down the street as the chemicals flooded my brain.
It wasn’t to last long though. Around an hour later the numbing effect of the Hua-Jiao wore off, and I realised what I had done.
The first thing to hit me was the pain in my mouth and down along my throat. I could feel blisters welling up, and there were ulcers around my gums which were incredibly sensitive to touch. Meanwhile, down below, there was an ominous quaking in my stomach like a reactor poised on the brink of nuclear meltdown.
Without wishing to go into too many details, the meltdown arrived not long after and it was horrific. There was blood in my vomit, and my body seemed capable only of passing liquids which burnt skin like battery acid. Meanwhile, my head was burning up and I fell into a vicious fever.
For close to three days I couldn’t eat, as even the softest of morsels sent my blistered mouth into agony. I spent more time in the bathroom than outside of it, and my whole body felt weak from the poison. Even walking around the apartment became a challenge. I felt as though I was dying – on occasion I even prayed for the release that death would bring. At the height of my malady I experienced strange hallucinations; I had no idea whether I was waking or sleeping, and peculiar dreams haunted me in both states.
I guess there’s probably a moral or two in this story. I have certainly approached chilli with less bravado since the incident, although I’m still hooked on it. Moreover this experience, along with others since, has taught me to never – under any circumstances – underestimate the Chinese.
 ‘Farang’ is the Thai word used for anyone of a European ancestry. More commonly, it simply gets used to denote foreigners.
 ‘Scoville’ is the unit used for measuring how spicy something is. For the sake of reference, Tabasco sauce ranges from 100-600 Scovilles, a Jalapeño is somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, while the world’s most potent chilli, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, is recorded to reach as high as 1.2 million Scovilles (Life’s Little Mysteries gives a good overview of the likely side effects from eating one). You can see a full chart of Scoville ratings on Chilli World.
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