- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

CHENGDU, China — I summon the waiter with a wave, and he rushes over, grinning, talking in Mandarin about getting me whatever I need. It takes several seconds before doubt begins to cross his face, and this is why: I am trying to talk, but no words are coming out.

I am in a raucous room that opens onto a narrow, bustling alley. The place is called Yulin Chuanchuan Xiang — Jade Forest Fragrant Skewers. Its specialty is “firepot” — a brand of hot pot bubbling like the cauldron of one of Macbeth’s witches, filled with some of the hottest peppers in the world. They float in the metal bowl in front of me, gastronomy’s answer to open canker sores.

Jade Forest is in an old neighborhood called Huaxing Jie, which, in turn, is in a city called Chengdu — which, in turn, is the capital of a western Chinese province you may have heard of when you have ordered takeout from the corner Chinese place. The province is called Sichuan, although you may know it by its old form, Szechwan.

This is the epicenter of spicy Chinese food and home of the flower pepper, a dried berry that, combined with chili peppers, creates a tingly-spicy flavoring found in no other cuisine. I have come here looking for the hottest dish I can find.

I have been addicted to high levels of capsicum since I was a young boy living in Singapore. I had a nanny named Amiah who made me Malay curry when I was 6. The peppers, she told me, came from a crop that also was used to make muscle ointments such as BenGay. When it comes to spicy, I think I can take anything.

That does not explain why, at this moment, I cannot speak. Language isn’t the problem; my Chinese is just fine, thank you. It’s just that my throat and my lungs and my vocal cords are not cooperating. Beads of sweat are forming behind my eyebrows. I am the only foreigner within view. Everywhere, people are looking at me, pointing and shouting, “Laowai” — “Foreigner.”

To my friends, the people I have told about this pepper-procuring vacation, I have dubbed my trip “Chasing Pain.”

It seems I have found it.

To Chinese, hot peppers are a defining topic. In all corners of the land, they say to each other, “Ni chi la ma?” — “Do you eat spicy?” There’s no shame in saying you can’t — the Cantonese are proud that they don’t “chi la” — but there’s a certain hardy, roll-up-your-sleeves manliness to answering the question in the affirmative.

That is not why I’m here. I am on a personal mission in Chengdu. I have craved spicy food for most of my life. I collect hot sauces from all over. I have yet to meet a “Suicide Wing” that can scare me. In college, my fraternity brothers paid me $10 a head to do shots of Tabasco. They thought I was a carnival attraction; I walked away with a weekend’s worth of beer money. I add hot sauce to everything, so I figure I should visit a place where I don’t need it.

Sichuan food is nothing like Szechwan food, its American counterpart. Once I was in a Chinese restaurant in a large Northeastern city when a woman at the next table bleated to her companion, “Szechwan means spicy in Chinese.” Well, no, actually Sichuan means four lakes. Anyway, her food wasn’t spicy; the manager of that particular American-Chinese restaurant was Taiwanese, which is as if a North Carolina barbecue master opened a New England clam shack in Minsk.

Even in Beijing, where the greasy Sichuan eateries are plentiful, I kept hearing whispers of a better place, where the tongue-tingling peppercorns were even more plentiful and the red peppers were relentless. I realized that if I truly wanted to burn off my face, I couldn’t do it remotely. So I set out for Chengdu.

The city is famous for its “little eats” — more than snacks, less than meals. As China undergoes a restaurant renaissance, the country is dotted with “Chengdu Little Eats” — places where you can get a bowl of spicy pork, tingly dandan noodles or the town specialty, scarlet-sauced spicy “pockmarked” tofu with minced beef. Firepot, with its endless skewers of sundry vegetables and meats, is part of this category.

I spend my first few days making stomach sorties from my hotel, first within a two-block radius, then within a mile, before I cast a wider net. Each place has food more delicious than the last. At one ratty snack place, the red-oil dumplings send me into fits of orgiastic moaning.

People stare, and, like many of the times when they see my white face and hulking frame, there comes the inevitable shout: “Laowai.” At 10 each night, I waddle back to the hotel and sleep fitfully, dreaming of my next meal.

It’s an odd experience doing all of this solo because eating is such a communal event to the Chinese. Until fast food arrived, it was unusual to have two-person tables in any restaurant. Perhaps the best-case scenario would have been for me to bring my posse along (presuming that I had a posse) so many dishes could be sampled.

Yet this particular search seems better conducted by myself. It’s a bit obsessive, and obsession is better parsed in private. Plus, the dramaturge in me enjoys the notion that “this is a quest I must complete alone.” On a more practical level, between the peppercorns and ginger and pore-infiltrating garlic, I’m not the most fragrant person to be near.

One morning, I visit a wholesale market and buy a pound of flower peppers to take back to Beijing.

I ask at one of the stalls where I can find the hottest hot sauce around. The woman points me upstairs; as I walk away, I hear her laughing amiably with her stall mate.

“Laowai — always interesting,” they say, giggling as I turn around to give them a good-natured glare.

The waiter is still waiting for me to say something. But I can’t.

I am huffing. I am Lou Costello desperately trying to tell Bud Abbott that some rampaging creature who looks a great deal like Lon Chaney Jr. is approaching. I try again. Nothing but air. The waiter grins. He thinks I am in pain when I have merely succumbed to pepper-induced laryngitis. I look into the firepot, and peppers specially selected because of their personal dislike for me glare back.

Around me, in every direction, Chinese are dipping pieces of vegetables, meat and things I don’t begin to recognize into bubbling cauldrons. Gomez Addams would have enjoyed pouring this concoction from his roof onto Christmas carolers.

Imagine the possibilities for medieval castle defense: A moat filled with boiling, blinding Sichuan red oil would have made the ideal holiday accessory for that hard-to-please viscount.

And what about Sichuan pepper spray for warding off assailants? Its time hasn’t yet come, but you can bet Williams-Sonoma or the Sharper Image is keen to get it into research and development.

I gulp and remind myself that Deng Xiaoping, the leader who started China’s economic reform, was Sichuanese.

He was a tiny man — sometimes called “little bottle” — and if he can take it, I can. Finally, after about 30 seconds, speech returns.

“Bottle of beer,” I wheeze in Chinese. The waiter runs and returns with the first of two malt-liquor-sized bottles of Golden Blue Sword, a thin, tepid brew that quickly becomes the most refreshing thing I have ever sampled.

Half an hour and 30 skewers later, the phlegm in my respiratory tract is looser than Paris Hilton’s reputation. I ask for the check (about $6.50), and the busboy stares at the empty plates. “Most foreigners who come here, they can’t take this or don’t like it,” he says. It’s not a compliment, but I think he vaguely approves.

My esophagus aches. I wander out into the narrow street and inhale deeply, hungry for non-peppery air. From behind me, I hear someone shout. “Laowai zoule.” The foreigner has left the building.

• • •

Flights from Beijing to Chengdu take about three hours and cost about $150 each way. Clean hotels range from $75 to $200 for top-end choices. Taxis in the city are very inexpensive, although most cabbies do not know English. For more information, visit www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/sichuan or call the China National Tourist Office in New York: 212/760-9700.

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