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changsha

Field trip #1: Changsha, Hunan Province

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My stay in Sichuan revolves around food – its making, eating and researching. So when we went on a field trip during a long weekend, it was not to a sacred mountain or a famous bamboo forest, but to an inscrutable and tough city in the province whose food is our second favorite after the Sichuan food. We went to Changsha, Hunan.

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Changsha is a pit. Or rather, many pits. During our visit, the subway construction was in progress, and the downtown was scarred with giant red earth canyons. Crisscrossing the pits were multi-lane highways with flyovers that rudely urged pedestrians to seek shelter in underground tunnels. When the subway is finished the pits will be closed but the city will still be ruined by cars.

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We dined in a Dianping-rated restaurant Dawanchu 大碗厨. The staff warned us of spicy food; I reassured them again and again. We started with a pig's trotter. It arrived lightly dusted with chili flakes, as if the cooks withheld the chilies from the recipe and put some on the surface, to placate the foreigners who just don't know what's good for them. The whole dinner was great, though, if too clean. I wanted something rowdy.

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The next day we had a late lunch in the street: cold noodles tossed with pickled beans, cilantro, peanuts and sesame oil.

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The dinner in a quaint restaurant Juan Juan 娟娟 was fun.

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We had goose on a hot plate and fish garnished with two kinds of pickled chilies.

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I wanted to sample everything Changsha had to offer. One morning we lined up for muffins in a very popular bakery. Everyone in front of us bought a whole tray of muffins, so we had to line up for a very long time for more batches.

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When I asked for four muffins, the staff was incredulous. "Do you mean, four jin (two kilos)?" The smallest amount they could sell was half a jin (200 gram). That was 5 yuan for 10 muffins. The muffins were airy, sugary and fine, but not worth the wait.

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For lunch I chose very reputable Yulong Bullfrog Restaurant 昱龙牛蛙馆. Plain and quiet from the street, the restaurant was cavernous and dark inside, teeming with people. The signature frog cauldron was clearly meant to be consumed by all three generations gathered at the round table. The waitress recommended a smaller dish: dry-pot water fish. This tautology – 'water fish' – should have alarmed me...

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I never meant to eat a turtle. I like turtles. They are nice people. Yet, here it was, carcass, shell, bony paws and all. It was delicious despite the lack of muscle meat and so much labor at its extraction. I soon began to like those gelatinous membranes under the shell. Sorry, turtle.

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By the evening of the last day in Changsha we wandered in the remains of the old city, near the river. The neighborhood was on the edge of obliteration, of course, but where the streets and houses were still intact people were selling famed Hunanese smoked meats, mashing pickled chilies, playing mahjong in glassed-in storefronts, making tea.

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We had dinner in a popular He Family Ribs Restaurant 何氏排骨. The walls were covered with photos of He posing alongside celebrities and officials that ate at his restaurant. On every photo, Mr. He maintained the same blank expression.

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The ribs were amazing, juicy, hot – and nothing like Hunan-style ribs we love in Shanghai. In fact, none of the restaurant menus had any of the Hunan specials that we're used to, expect maybe a profusion of dry-pots 干锅. Perhaps, pickled bean and cured bacon-flavored dishes are cooked at home, and the fish head is a special feast.

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Hunan Museum celebrates the lifestyle of a rich and famous Han-era family of marquis Li Cang and his wife Lady Dai, in an amazing display of relics excavated at Mawangdui 马王堆 site.

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Lady Dai's taste for luxury defied imagination. She was encoffined with great pomp, swathed in silks, propped by trunks with choicest goods, surrounded by an army of servants. Her tomb was packed with her best Louis Vuitton bronzeware.

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Her lacquered tableware was stunningly modern and Japanese.

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Her layered chiffon gowns defeated attempts at estimating how much time it took to embroider them with such detail.

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Carved puppets representing Lady Dai's attendants froze in a humble bow.

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Everything prepared her for heaven, with glowing sun crows and moon toads...

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Of where she ended up we'll say no more. Time for some taichi!

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