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.
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.