There’s more to Sichuan cui­sine than mala hot pot. Head chef Eu­gene See show­cases the depth of this sec­ond-tier city and what it has to of­fer.

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Chengdu of­fers way more than mala hot pot

There’s much more to Sichuan food flavours than mouth­numb­ing spici­ness. Chengdu, the cap­i­tal of China’s Sichuan prov­ince and one of UN­ESCO’S Creative Cities for Gas­tron­omy, of­fers a cui­sine that bal­ances the el­e­ments of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and ma – the lat­ter is a numb­ing sen­sa­tion from in­gre­di­ents like Sichuan pep­pers. Th­ese pep­pers not only add heat to Sichuan dishes but are used for a prac­ti­cal rea­son as well. Due to Chengdu’s hu­mid cli­mate, con­sum­ing th­ese chill­ies helps the body re­lease tox­ins that are trapped by the damp air while also cool­ing you down.

While the cui­sine’s pres­ence has pro­lif­er­ated to other parts of China (even Mcdon­ald’s has its now-in­fa­mous take on a Sichuan sauce), I be­lieve that there’s noth­ing like go­ing straight to the au­then­tic source to fully un­der­stand how th­ese pep­pers and other spices should be used.

Sichuan cui­sine 101

The food in Chengdu can­not be pi­geon­holed, but there are some com­mon dishes that ev­ery­one knows and loves. There are dozens of other dishes that one can or­der, but I think th­ese are a good start. Two pop­u­lar cold dishes are diced cu­cum­ber cov­ered in chill­ies and minced gar­lic, and cold gluti­nous strips drenched in minced gar­lic and chilli. Some com­mon stir-fried dishes in­clude pork with green pep­pers, beef with pick­led pep­pers, spicy chicken with red chill­ies, fish-flavoured pork and veg­gies as well as crispy, sweet duck.

Sichuan hot­pot de­serves spe­cial men­tion. A typ­i­cal hot­pot starts with a vat of oil cooked with chilli, Sichuan pep­per­corn (also known as the in­fa­mous “mouth-numb­ing spice”), star anise, and cin­na­mon sticks. The “white”, non-spicy ver­sion is filled with mush­rooms, green onions and some Chi­nese herbs. The “red” spicy por­tion is a crim­son, bub­bling froth of pep­pers and oil. Af­ter the pot starts bub­bling, you se­lect sev­eral small dishes from about

100 in­gre­di­ents, such as cow stom­ach, duck in­testines, chicken liver, ba­con strips, beef chunks, po­tato slices, tofu skin, frogs, prawns, bam­boo shoots, cour­gette and fresh river eel. Pop your choices into the pot, and while the in­gre­di­ents cook in the caul­dron pre­pare the sauces. You can fill your bowl with any com­bi­na­tion of minced gar­lic, co­rian­der, se­same oil, salt and pep­per, soy sauce or vine­gar. Fish the food out, pop them into your bowl and slurp them down with a beer or a glass of soy milk, whichever helps to tame your tongue best. The best hotspot in town is Ma Wang Zi Restau­rant at No.1 East Kang­shi Street.

Next on the list is bar­be­cue. Dur­ing evenings, you will find an army of bar­be­cue stands ap­pear­ing on many cor­ners of the city, serv­ing up skew­ers of meat and veg­gies un­til early dawn. The typ­i­cal choices are sliced lo­tus root or po­tato, chicken, pork, and

beef ke­babs, small fish, tofu, quail’s eggs, and cauliflower. Most ven­dors spice th­ese foods with chilli pep­pers,

MSG and salt, so re­mem­ber to say this be­fore order­ing: “Bu yao wei jing”, which means “no MSG please”. My favourite bar­be­cue stand is Chengdu Chao Yang at Chao Yang Lu Hao, Xiang Bin Wu Tong.

I was pleas­antly sur­prised when a close friend of mine told me that Chengdu has a strong veg­e­tar­ian com­mu­nity, as I had as­sumed that the cui­sine is meat-heavy. Fun food fact: Sichuan meat dishes can be al­tered to suit veg­e­tar­i­ans. For ex­am­ple, chicken can be sub­stitued for tofu in the clas­sic dish, kung pao chicken. There are also more veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants around town that serve Sichuan clas­sics with mock meat, such as the Spicy Red Noo­dles from Cha Sh­u­fang Cha Zha Mian Zong Dian (Cha Sh­u­fang Main Noo­dle Shop). No­table restau­rants in­clude Veg­e­tar­ian Life­style and Lo­tus on the Wa­ter. Most lo­cal tem­ples also house veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants.

Street food ga­lore

Lo­cal snacks are the pride of the peo­ple in Chengdu. Wen­sh­u­fang block sells a va­ri­ety of snacks and au­then­tic Sichuan foods. Lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional TV sta­tions of­ten come here to doc­u­ment the scene. You don’t need to walk, be­cause the snack bar is stand­ing along the block one by one. Longchaoshou, Lai’s rice dumplings, Zhong’s dumplings and bean jelly are avail­able here.

Wen­sh­u­fang is a fa­mous western-sichuan folk com­mer­cial block in Chengdu, in ad­di­tion to tra­di­tional an­tique shops and arts and crafts shops, the food is an­other high­light. No.15 Wen­shuyuan Street, Qingyang Dis­trict, Chengdu. You take the Metro line No.1 and get off at Wen­shuyuan Sta­tion. If you take the bus, you can get off at the North Street or Wen­shuyuan.

Yangx­ix­ian Food Street is the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive food street in Chengdu. Here you can find Sichuan food as well as del­i­ca­cies from dif­fer­ent re­gions and at dif­fer­ent price points. It also pro­motes the growth of the neigh­bour­ing Hot­pot Street of Fu­nan New Dis­trict. There are a lot of cuisines here, from Sichuan restau­rants like Hongx­ing, Daronghe, Sun­set restau­rants to Can­tonese restau­rants like Ginkgo, Sheng­taosha, Chao­huangge and so on. For­eign cuisines have also taken root here, in­clud­ing Ja­panese-style bar­be­cue, Korean bar­be­cue and Brazil roasted meat.

Fine din­ing in Chengdu

This bustling city is also home to a mul­ti­tude of fine din­ing restau­rants. Case in point, award-win­ning chef An­dré Chi­ang’s con­tem­po­rary Sichuan restau­rant, THE BRIDGE.

Other note­wor­thy spots in­clude Hong Xing Jiu Dan, which is a stone’s throw away from Chengdu Uni­ver­sity of In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy. It’s a must-visit restau­rant on ev­ery lo­cal’s list. With only 18 seats, it is best to make a reser­va­tion be­fore head­ing down. A per­son­alised menu show­cas­ing the finest in­gre­di­ents and cook­ing

“I was pleas­antly sur­prised when a close friend of mine told me that Chengdu has a strong veg­e­tar­ian com­mu­nity, as I had as­sumed that the cui­sine is meat-heavy.”

tech­niques Chengdu has to of­fer. Chef Lan Gui­jun, known for his min­i­mal­ist ap­proach to Sichuan food, of­fers a 25-course din­ner which in­cludes spiced loach served with roast sweet po­tato, nee­dle-fine duck yolk noo­dles sus­pended in del­i­cate Chi­nese cab­bage broth, and sea cu­cum­ber in a sour, spicy Sichuan broth. Ev­ery dish is beau­ti­fully pre­sented in cus­tom-made china.

Yu’s Fam­ily Kitchen is help­ing to raise Chengdu’s pro­file in the fine din­ing world. Run by chef Yu Bo, who is well-known among Chi­nese food­ies, the restau­rant’s de­gus­ta­tion menu of­fers more than 30 cour­ses com­bin­ing com­plex Chi­nese flavours and in­flu­ences from molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy. High­lights of the menu in­clude rice jelly with chilli and abalone, pi­geon breast meat floss, thinly sliced smoked duck, and a “paint­brush” made of beef-filled pas­try and dipped into tomato “ink”.

Eu­gene See and his team of chefs Red Spicy Noo­dles

Rab­bit’s head from a road­side stall

Guoba and po­tato

Pork trot­ters sprin­kled with fiery chilli pow­der Sin­ga­pore-born Eu­gene See grew up in Malaysia and stud­ied at Le Cor­don Bleu Malaysia. He is now the head chef at Birds of a Feather, a Sichuan-in­flu­enced modern Euro­pean restau­rant on Amoy Street. Housed in a two-storey shop­house on Amoy Street, the restau­rant fea­tures an eclec­tic mix of lush plants, wooden fur­ni­ture and eye­catch­ing fit­tings like pil­lowy cloud lamps, plus an ex­pan­sive bar that serves clas­sic and in­no­va­tive cock­tails. His restau­rant mar­ries the rich flavours of Sichuan cui­sine with the tech­ni­cal fi­nesse from the French kitchen.

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