Sichuan spice is no joke. Sichuan black peppercorns are known for their mouth-numbing properties, while a plethora of other spicy ingredients can have sweat and tears running down your face. Thankfully, not all Sichuan-style dishes are so volatile, though! For those with lighter palates, Sichuan food can also be sweet, savory and refreshing.
Sichuan’s diverse cuisine is considered one of China’s four main styles of cooking; the others being Shandong, Jiangsu, and Guangdong/Cantonese. In 2010, Chengdu was awarded the honor of being the first Asian city to receive the Unesco title of “City of Gastronomy.” I was here for a weekend to see what all the fuss is about!
My first taste of Real Sichuan Mala Tang Hotpot
On my first night in Chengdu, I reunited with my buddy Xian and his friend at a famous Malatang hot pot. As it was a nice night, I chose to walk to the center of the city from my hotel near the Wenshu Temple. On the way, I passed by many, many queues of people waiting in line to enter various restaurants. I learned later, it’s not uncommon for people in Chengdu to wait long hours in line before their seated – I guess it’s all in tandem with the famed laid-back lifestyle here.
Last year, when I met up with Xian the night before I flew to Tibet, we had Sichuan hotpot at the airport. Back then, even half spicy was too hot for me. Remembering that experience, I was glad when we opted for a split Yin-Yang soup pot.
We went to gather our ingredients for the hotpot (one normally goes to choose what they eat rather than having raw dishes brought over). I was surprised at the array of small shish-kabobs. Xian instructed me to just place whatever skewered vegetables or meat I wanted onto our trays. We ultimately pay at the end for each thin kabob stick (the waiter tallies all your sticks at the end of the meal from the little container designated for them on the table). The condiment bar had your usual selection of spices (cumin, sugar, garlic, cilantro) along with sauces (some I recognized like soy sauce, sesame paste, peanut butter, hoisin, and vinegar). Xian cautioned me not to get too crazy, saying our hotpot didn’t really need additional sauces.
Back at the table, our hotpot was starting to boil. One half of the pot was an ominous deep red, teasing glimpses of fresh and dried chili peppers and black peppercorns bobbed in the currents of the simmering liquid. The other half was a less intimidating orange-colored Thai curry. We took turns sticking skewers into the liquid, sometimes sliding them off the skewers for faster cooking. The general rule with hotpot is that if it’s floating, it’s done.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this experience was when Xian taught me to open the juice packet-looking container and pour it into the little condiment bowl I had made back at the condiment counter. Inside the container was more of the hot chili oil! I didn’t really understand how the practice of dipping your already spicy food in spicy oil (and drinking tea) is supposed to offset the fire-y bite of the food, but I had fun going with the flow.
Bringing on the Heat
I spent my second day in Chengdu with Guoqiang, a former university colleague of my husband’s. Guoqiang took me to one of his local hangouts to try some more authentic Sichuan-style dishes for lunch.
I noticed most of the dishes featured the tongue-numbing peppercorns and heavily seasoned with generous amount of garlic and chili peppers – some dishes had more hot peppers than anything else! Peanuts, sesame paste and ginger also played a prominent role.
Laziji (辣子鸡), a dish with bits of corn and chunks of chicken (with bones as is usual in China), was an intense experience. I gave it a go, but honestly had to stop after a few painful bites. My entire mouth felt like someone was scraping the insides with a razor, it hurt so much. The dandelion tea served to us did little to help, so we had to ask for rice for me (to avoid a public meltdown). The rice did help, as I was able to eat a few more bites with it. Guoqiang, being super gungho, went at the dish with gusto, but eventually admitted defeat, saying that it was “too classic” even for him.
Liangfen (Chinese Jelly Noodles) were pretty good (thankfully not as spicy as that last dish). Liangfen (凉粉) jelly noodles are made with either pea starch, sweet potato or mungbean starch. There’s a famous dish in Sichuan using these noodles called, Beichuang Liangfen (heat break jelly noodles). The story goes that if you feel heartbreak and go to eat this dish, your sadness will go away “like the wind” since the noodles are so spicy that all you will have room to feel is an all consuming fire on your taste buds!!
One can never go wrong with eggplant. It’s my go-to dish anywhere in China. This one was still spicy, but not painfully so.
For dinner Guoqiang really wasn’t feeling well after lunch (I’m guessing all that spice didn’t sit well), so I had a bowl of homemade mushroom jiaozi (dumplings) from a hole-in-the-wall mom and pop shop (delicious!) and a bowl of Bing Fen for dessert.
Bing Fen (冰粉) is a sweet snack typically eaten during the summer in Chengdu. It reminded me a bit of jello, but in pieces. It was a light, sweet mixture of jellies, raisins, hawthorn candy, nuts and molasses, and a great, refreshingly cool way to cap off the spice-filled day.
Here are some more pictures of interesting food I encountered in Chengdu:
Trying Sichuan food in Sichuan Province is another experience I’m happy to off my China bucket list. Most of the dishes were very tasty, if slightly intolerable at times, but I know this isn’t a type of food I could eat everyday without some major antacids and gallons of milk. By the end of this long holiday weekend, I was glad to be returning to my savory, tangy (and waaaay less spicy) foods of Lishui, Zhejiang.
My next post about Sichuan Province will be on my solo trek to see the Giant Leshan Buddha, the main reason and highlight of this trip! !