Chengdu, China: A City Tasting Tour
China is astonishingly diverse in the richness and variety of its cuisines. While Cantonese cuisine has traditionally been the most well-known and visible around the world, in recent years the cooking of Sichuan Province has come to the fore thanks to its complexity, nuance and subtlety.
Chengdu is one of China’s megacities with a population of 14 million and a history that spans more than 2,000 years. It’s famously home to the giant panda breeding centre and has a reputation as one of China’s most laid-back cities where people lack the frantic rush of Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. In common with the rest of China, food is taken incredibly seriously and there a mind-boggling array of restaurants and hole-in-the-wall spots to choose from. Its reputation may be made on chilli and numbing Sichuan peppercorns known as hua jiao, but the region has far more to offer as borne out by a tasting tour in the south west province’s capital of Chengdu. Hot, numbing, sweet, sour and savoury all feature in truly balanced dishes across the city's brilliant dining options.
From typical meals and street food, to fine dining restaurants, here are some places to eat in Chengdu.
You simply cannot visit Chengdu without trying the most famous and popular dish, Ma la huo guo hot pot. Originally a winter dish, today it is served year-round. It’s communal eating at its finest, as you plunge vegetables, meat, fish, tofu and more into a peppery and hot sauce bubbling with Sichuan peppercorns. ‘Peppercorn’ is a misnomer though, as the numbing effect of hua jiao actually comes from tiny seed husks of the prickly ash tree. Harold McGee famously said: "The numbing sensation is like the effect of a mild electric current, touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue." Amidst thousands of options, try it at Da Miao, in Central Chengdu.
Ma po dou fu is another classic which shows just how much fun can be had with tofu. A stunning mix of tofu under ground pork, Sichuan chili bean sauce and ground hua jiao, it has rightly become renowned around the world. Served simply over white rice, one occasional addition to make it even creamier comes in the form of lamb’s brains, especially at Ming Ting restaurant, an unassuming but hugely-popular joint in the Jinniu district.
Guo Kui are a beloved street food snack, insanely-good flatbreads, usually stuffed with meats or sweet fillings. My favourite came with theatrical presentation as two men slapped minced pork, ground hua jiao and more into long rolls of pastry, before frying them until golden brown and flaky. The sense of culinary theatre, right on the sidewalk, also allows diners to see exactly how they’re made. Try them at Guo Kui, in the Shuangliu district.
The Temple Cafe
If you feel the need for more global flavours and ingredients, one spot to try comes at The Temple Café in the elegant Temple House Hotel. Not only do they serve hua jiao-laced cocktails such as the Sichuan Negroni, but French head chef Jerome Merlo incorporates it into dishes such as his Pumpkin crème brulee, as “It lifts it up, giving roundness and citrus notes.”
Yu Zhi Lan
Arguably the city’s most famous name is Lan Guijun, chef at the tiny spot Yu Zhi Lan. His eighteen-seat restaurant has continued to lead by example with its degustation style of up to 25 courses, all served on custom made plates also made by the multi-talented chef. Expect dishes such as Abalone, sea cucumber in hot and sour sauce or eggplant and Pork rolls in fish sauce.