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October 31, 2009

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Thin-sliced pork, tiny fish, baijiu

SICHUANESE pride themselves in their food and Lizhuang is no exception. Blessed with fish from the Yangtze River and lots of fresh produce from rural areas, Lizhuang has a vibrant and diverse range of local cuisine to enjoy.

The historic town is particularly known for local produce including peanuts, fish, pork, white spirits or baijiu and a range of sweet white cakes called baigao.

The thin-sliced white pork or bairou is particularly famous. There's a local saying that you haven't visited Lizhuang unless you've tasted the white pork.

The dish requires the choicest rump pork, exacting cooking techniques and a highly skilled chef to slice the meat as thin as possible.

Every two or three years Lizhuang holds a competition to find its "champion knife" who can prepare and slice the best pork.

The reigning champion is local chef Dai Youyang who says first practiced on tomatoes before being allowed to slice the pork dish.

"It took me six years of study before I could master the technique," he says. "I won the title in 2007 and you are judged on how you cook the pork, how you slice the pork and how good your dipping sauce is."

The competition is judged by a panel of judges and the audience.

The ideal slice is between 1-2mm thick and almost translucent. Slices should be 20cm long and 15cm wide and are accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce. Locals pick up a piece of pork and with a practiced flick of the wrist, wrapping it around their chopsticks before dipping it.

The bairou is one of the so-called "three whites and two yellows of Lizhuang's local delicacies."

The other two whites are its fiery baijiu and its tasty baigao.

Its two yellows are huanglading, a small yellow fish caught in the Yangtze River and huangba which is a sticky rice cooked with red sugar and wrapped in leaves.

In large river houseboats diners can get the local catch kept in fish tanks in the hulls. This involves a net full of tiny yellow fish that are added to Lizhuang's tongue-tingling fiery hot pots.

No dinner with locals is complete without a few rounds of ganbei (cheers) with the local baijiu, containing a bracing 52-percent alcohol. The distillery is open for tours.

Despite being a small town, Lizhuang has a rich culinary history.

Tea houses are full of men playing cards and mahjong during the day and unlike many other holiday destinations, here the locals like to stay out late and there's lots of activities after midnight.

In some ways it feels like parts of southern Europe, where people take the time to appreciate the finer things in life. A visit is a respite from urban chaos.


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