A numbing, burning, textural masterpiece, and the kind of thing a budding empire is built on" was how GQ food critic Brett Martin described his "Appetizer of the Year" in the US magazine's April issue.
Chinese readers may not immediately recognize the Sichuan dish from its American name—Pepper Twins, the Houston restaurant where Martin ate, calls it "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," after the Hollywood action-comedy starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—but foodies can probably guess that Martin was referring to the classic fuqi feipian (夫妻肺片), a name that literally means "husband and wife lung slices."
A more descriptive translation should be "sliced beef and ox tongue in chili sauce," because, despite the gory nickname, fuqi feipian has nothing to do with human flesh, or even lung for that matter. The appetizer consists of thinly sliced beef and organs (usually cow heart, tongue, or tripe; actual lung is rarely used), served cold—and spicy.
According to food legend, during the late Qing dynasty, many vendors sold cold beef on the streets of Chengdu, Sichuan's capital. The slices were popular with low-income residents, like rickshaw drivers and students, and organs were often used because they were cheap. One married couple, Guo Zhaohua and wife Zhang Tianzheng, grew famous for their version, which used inventive marinating techniques, mostly to disguise the fact that the ingredients were not exactly premium parts of the cow.
Business boomed, and people began calling it "夫妻废片," or "husband and wife waste slices," after its creators. The couple agreed this was a good name, apart from the "废片" (waste) part, so changed it to the homonym "lung slices" (肺片), since lung could be used in the dish. One satisfied merchant was said to have given the couple a gold plaque, with the name inscribed, to decorate their shop.
When later cooks started using beef tongue and other tastier cuts, the name stayed, even though some dislike its colloquial character: In 2012, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University published a 170-page state-backed book of standardized menu names to "promote Chinese culture," calling out fuqi feipian as "one of the most horribly translated names in Chinese cuisine."
But for most people, the odd name is the best part of the dish, which is now a mainstay on Chinese menus—as well as a good introduction to the strong ingredients for which Sichuan cuisine is known, such as garlic, chilies, anise, and, most distinctively, Sichuan peppercorn. The latter has a unique numbing quality which, when fried in hot oil, exudes a floral aroma, arousing the taste buds.