It is a lucky person who gets to see a giant panda in the wild. One of the only ways to do so is to visit the Sichuan province in China. It will also enable you to discover one of the world’s great cuisines.
The cuddle-some image of a panda has ousted the dragon as a symbol of China. You can find panda images printed on T-shirts, through rucksacks to toys. In China the panda was one of mascots for the Beijing Olympics and nowadays it seem to pop up everywhere, except in the wild where it has become very rare.
Indeed, one of the few surveys of pandas in the wild, which was completed in 12 months spanning 2003 and 2004, estimated there were just 1,600 of this endangered species still living in the wild. That was prior to the Sichuan earthquake and predates China’s massive tourism boom so it’s safe to assume numbers have dwindled further. Of the wild pandas that remain, 80% live in northern Sichuan.
Sichuan province is in China’s south-west. It has two panda-breeding centres as well as an area of protected wilderness for wild pandas to survive. The name Sichuan translates as Four Rivers and refers to four of the rivers that weave through snow-capped mountains here.
The province’s capital is Chengdu, which is famous for its fiery cuisine. It is a five hour flight from Beijing. The Research Base at Chengdu is among the world’s largest panda reserves. It is also an artificial-insemination breeding centre.
About 50 giant pandas live in the Research Base. Their homes are protected pens set in bamboo woods and groves. If you are a tourist who wants to see pandas ‘in the wild’ this is where you will be taken. Young pandas enjoy specially constructed adventure playgrounds. Here they snooze on tree stumps, gambol and roly-poly with one another, or crunch on bamboo shoots.
The food of Sichuan is regarded as one of the world’s great cuisines. It includes classics like Mapo Tofu, and Gong Bao Chicken. It’s traditional here to have an exciting spread of cold dishes, including Green Beans in Ginger Sauce, Bang Bang Chicken, and Spiced Cucumber Salad.
The soup that is common here is Suan La Tang (Sichuan Hot & Sour Soup). It is particularly popular during the cold of winter. It was developed to feed poor people and keep them warm. Traditionally is uses lots of white pepper and chicken and pork stock.
The ingredients for an authentic Suan La Tang are:
- 3dried thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms soaked in hot water
- 1/4cup dried and shredded wood ear mushrooms again soaked in hot water
- 50g shredded pork
- 4shredded bamboo shoots
- 1/3shredded carrot
- 1thumb shredded ginger
- 3tbsp black vinegar
- 2tsp ground white pepper
- 5cups chicken stock
- 50gsoft tofu
- 1tsp dark soy sauce
- 2tbsp light soy sauce
- salt to taste
- 1/2tbsp sugar
- 1large beaten egg
- sesame oil to drizzle
- chopped spring onions and coriander leaves
- 1/4tsp sugar
- 2tsp light soy sauce
- 1tsp corn starch
- 1/4tsp salt
- 3tbsp corn starch
- 3tbsp water
- Prepare the pork by marinating pork shreds in the light soy sauce, with sugar, cornstarch and salt and mixing well.
- Heat a wok and add the carrots, the bamboo shoots, the wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and ginger shreds then add the stock and bring to a boil before lowering the temperature and simmering for 15 minutes.
- Add the soy sauces along with the sugar and salt and continue to cook for another two minutes.
- Add the shredded tofu and the pork shreds and stir when the contents come to the boil again.
- Stir the cornstarch and water and pour into the soup. It will thicken as the liquid heats up.
- Drizzle in the beaten egg. For smaller flowers stir quickly. For larger flowers stir roughly.
- Add the black vinegar and the white pepper and turn off immediately.
- Finally add the chopped spring onions and coriander and drizzle a little sesame oil on top.
If you are short of time, Ainsley Harriott does a passable, if meat-free, instant Szechuan hot & sour cup soup with tomato, leek, carrot, and a kick of chilli that’s available in most supermarkets. To make this even more palatable I recommend adding a small amount of diced carrots and fresh tomatoes with a pinch of red pepper flakes and a few slices of fresh green or red chilli.
By the way, predictions that China could become the world’s most visited tourist destination has encouraged the WWF to put effort into establishing panda corridors in the wilderness areas that are diminishing like Tudiling and Wanglang.
In the absence of mates from another gene pool and their food sources becoming increasingly rare, the ability of pandas to exist in the wild is being threatened.