German Chancellor Angela Merkel eats kung pao chicken, a spicy Sichuan dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers, at a Sichuan restaurant during her visit to Chengdu, the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province, July 6, 2014. Merkel kicked off her 7th China trip Sunday in the Southwestern city, a place that German companies regard as a springboard to the relatively underdeveloped western parts of China.
"I wish time to pass slowly so that I can enjoy more of the food and culture here in Chengdu," said Raymond Greene, the new US consul general in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
Greene said he fell in love with the spicy Sichuan food as soon as he took office in Chengdu in September.
"One of the greatest pleasures of living in Chengdu is the cuisine. In my opinion, it is the best in China. When I'm away from Sichuan, within a day or two, I start getting pangs for mala," he said.Mala is Chinese for "spicy".
Sichuan cuisine is gaining popularity among Westerners.
In July, during her state visit to China, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a Sichuan restaurant and learned how to cook Kung Pao Chicken, a famous Sichuan dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers. She also bought some seasonings for Sichuan cuisine at a local market.
British actress Bonnie Wright, who played Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films, tried hot pot and learned to cook Mapo Tofu during her visit to Chengdu last September.
"The first impression of Sichuan cuisine to many people is spicy, while in fact, 70 percent of dishes are not," said Peng Ziyu, a 70-year-old cooking master, who served Sichuan dishes to former French president Jacques Chirac during his visits to China.
Peng said Sichuan cuisine has a variety of flavors, including sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty, which could satisfy different tastes from all over the world. "People may not like every single dish of Sichuan cuisine, but they are sure to find some they will enjoy."
Peng said the various cooking styles of Sichuan cuisine also enables it to make use of all kinds of foods from different parts of the world.
During an event for trade and economic cooperation between Chinese and US cities held in Chicago last month, chefs from Chengdu served three dishes — cabbage, cod, and beefsteak at a pre-dinner cocktail party.
All of the ingredients were bought in Chicago, and the dishes looked the same as Western style ones, but they were cooked using Sichuan cooking methods.
Sichuan cuisine expert Xu Liang said Sichuan cuisine is one of the most diverse cuisines because it is a product of immigration.
"Chengdu experienced major migrations from central China's Hunan and Hubei provinces, southeastern China's Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, bringing different flavors and cooking styles from across the country to the city," Xu said.
A growing number of Sichuan restaurants have opened in the United States.
Peng said some of his students have opened restaurants in New York, Washington DC, New Jersey and Chicago. Most of the dishes are slightly adapted to suit local people's taste. But some of the classic dishes are not — such as Mapo Tofu and Boiled Beef.
"In fact, more foreigners are getting used to the original flavor of Sichuan cuisine," Peng said.
"There is definitely a trend toward eating authentic food. Increasingly, restaurants realize that people from the US are interested in authenticity," he said.
Xu suggests that Sichuan cuisine should pay more attention on nutrition and health so as to be widely accepted by foreigners.
"Traditionally, Sichuan cuisine mainly focuses on flavor. It uses too much oil and salt, which runs counter to healthy eating trends worldwide," he said.
Greene suggests organizing food competitions and inviting foreign media food critics to promote Sichuan cuisine, adding that "tourism is the best way to build a loyal following".
"I am sure everyone who visits Sichuan will go back and try to find the nearest Sichuan restaurant in their hometown," he said.
Both the Chengdu government and the US Consulate General in Chengdu expect Sichuan cuisine to play a more important role in the exchanges between the city and the US.
The two sides could develop cooperation in various fields including food safety, biotechnology, and sharing food materials, Greene said.
The commerce bureau of Chengdu has been organizing and encouraging more chefs and restaurants to promote Sichuan cuisine around the world, with US as a major destination, said Wen Feng, deputy director of the bureau.
"As a City of Gastronomy designated by UNESCO, Chengdu also organizes a variety of food exchange activities that welcome chefs and restaurants from around the world," Wen said.