I have just come back from a week's holiday in Sichuan Province in China. The autumn colours at Jiuzhaigou were glorious. The food was something else. We did not mind the hot chillies but there was something else in the food that caused our lips and tongues to go numb, like a shot of anaesthetic at a dentist's. It was an alarming sensation for our party of 30 Malaysians. The ingredient turned out to be the fruit capsules of Zanthoxylum piperitum, also known as Sichuan pepper. It is neither pepper nor chilli, but a relative of citrus (family Rutaceae). This is the defining ingredient of Sichuan cuisine. The Sichuan people fry this in oil together with chillies to bring out an aroma reminiscent of lemon and anise. Added to meat, vegetables etc, it provides a distinctive fragrance combined with fiery hotness and a numbing sensation.
We visited the Panda Breeding Centre at Chengdu and discovered why Pandas are so popular. They are slow, clumsy, good-natured and people-oriented. They wrestle with each other in full view of the public and feed on bamboo shoots while sitting in an upright position facing the public. There were many little ones in the nursery. I was busy snapping photos when a pickpocket took my wallet from my back pocket!
China is being rebuilt on a grand scale. The main roads in the cities are the widest I have ever seen anywhere, with 6 lanes for cars, one lane on each side for bicycles and another lane for pedestrians, buffered from each other by trees and shrubs. The public toilets have improved everywhere. There seems to be a great deal of optimism, wealth and youth in the cities.