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Try the thrillingly exciting foods of Toledo's sister city, Nanchong, China

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Sichuan food is “thrillingly exciting and dramatic.”

That’s how British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cooking and the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, described it in a 2016 interview on medium.com. “It’s about fu he wei  —  complex, layered flavors.”

And these sophisticated, nuanced flavors are those of Nanchong, one of Toledo’s newest sister cities.

“Nanchong food is basically Sichuan food,” said Ming Liu, who has been working with Toledo Sister Cities International to mediate its communications with this city in south-central China. “You cannot distinguish Nanchong food from the province,” he said, which serves one of the country’s four major cuisines. (The others are Lu/Shandong; Yue/Guangdong, which we know as Cantonese; and Su/Jiangsu.)

Sichuan dishes are famously spicy, as are many others throughout China, said Mr. Liu. But he emphasized that the “spicy taste is different” in each area.

In Southeast Asia, spiciness is mixed with sour flavors. In Sichuan, Mr. Liu said, “that spicy taste is mixed with a pepper that gives numbness.”

Ma Po Tofu, for example, is a representative example. “It’s all over the entire province,” said Mr. Liu, of the dish that features Sichuan peppercorns along with hot peppers in a bright red sauce enriched with ground beef or pork. The word “ma” translates to “numb,” he said.

Nanchong’s friendship with Toledo dates back nearly 15 years, though the formal relationship “is very new,” Mr. Liu said. “There’s an agreement that was signed late last year.”

In 2003, Johnnie L. Early II, dean of the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Toledo and a TSCI board member, visited the North Sichuan Medical College (now a university) for the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the schools. This led to an exchange program and, ultimately, to the Sister City relationship, said Mr. Liu, a professor in UT’s Department of Pharmacology.

There are some similarities between our city and Nanchong, which is one of the reasons that there was an interest in establishing a formal relationship, Mr. Liu said. In addition to the universities, “they have the auto industry,” he said. And there is also a strong artistic community featuring “giant puppets, lantern opera, and acrobatics.” It is called the City of Silk for its beautifully woven and printed fabrics.

Nanchong is situated along the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Agriculture flourishes there, thanks to its four seasons (although winters are fairly mild) and a humid climate. Rice and pork are top products, and the city is known as the fruit capital of China, particularly noted for its oranges.

Other distinctive foods are a prized vinegar and preserved cabbage. Dining from communal hot pots is very popular. (These are even served at Chuan Cai Fang Sichuan Restaurant, 3527 Dorr St., which offers an array of truly authentic delicacies.)

In the district where the North Sichuan Medical University is located, the Shunqing Mutton Restaurant started serving a dish of soup with meat and thin rice flour noodles in the 1920s. This comfort food is still enjoyed, especially when people have colds and also as a breakfast dish; many noodle shops open in the morning to accommodate customers.

A food that Mr. Liu described as “historic” is Zhang Fei beef, with a dark exterior and reddish interior. He said the dried meat is named after a famous general who served in the Nanchong area under warlord Liu Bei, first ruler of the Shu state, during the Three Kingdoms period.

Bao Ning steamed buns are soft and sweet, light and fluffy. Bakeries will stamp the small, white breads individually with red ink to authenticate them.

The translucent strands of Chuanbei Liangfen, or Chinese jelly noodles, are made from a starch — often mung bean, though peas or sweet potatoes can be used — that is boiled with water, poured into a pan to form a sheet, and then sliced into strips once the gel has set. The noodles are tossed in a spicy red chili sauce.

A different type of noodle dish, Sichuan Cold Noodles dressed in sesame and chili oils, is another regional specialty. It’s a favorite street food in Nanchong.

“I like the noodles,” Mr. Liu said of this dish, and he doesn’t find them to be painfully hot. But then, “I can eat extremely spicy food.”

Sichuan Cold Noodles

8 ounces fresh noodles or thin round noodles

2 teaspoons sesame oil

3 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon vinegar

½ tablespoon sesame paste or tahini

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Szechuan-style chili oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 English cucumber

⅓ cup bean sprouts

Prepare the noodles according to package directions. Drain, place into a large bowl, and immediately mix together with the sesame oil. Use chopsticks to stir the noodles up repeatedly to help the noodles cool down quickly. (On hot days, you can even resort to an electric fan.)

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, vinegar, sesame paste, salt, soy sauce, chili oil, and garlic. Mix well.

Peel and grate the cucumber; press dry in a towel, then stir into the noodles. Serve cold.

Yield: 2 servings

Source: Adapted from chinasichuanfood.com

Contact Mary Bilyeu at 419-724-6155 or mbilyeu@theblade.com, and follow her at facebook.com/thebladefoodpage.

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