Beyond the classics…
We love Mapo Tofu, Twice Cooked Pork and Gong Bao (yes Kung Pow) Chicken, but there’s so much more to food in Chengdu than these old time favorites. We want to show you the depth and diversity of the food here, as well as introduce you to dishes that capture the spirit of the city.
So here’s a quick list of 7 Dishes, beyond the classics you might know, that you MUST HAVE while you’re in Chengdu.
1. Cold Chicken in Chili Oil (凉拌鸡 – Liang Ban Ji)
Cold-dishes are underrated in general, but this one does an especially amazing job of capturing a wide range of flavors that shout “Sichuan”. Both heavy handed and delicate, it combines the famed numb and hot or mala flavor/feeling of Sichuan cuisine and mixes it with fermented vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, Sichuan pepper oil, sugar, sesame and spring onions. While the spiciness hits you up front it is the balance of flavors that makes this dish stand out, and likewise make it a good test of a chef’s ability. It is not an easy dish to make and many places can go too heavy on the spice, or the numbing peppers and lose the balance, but a good Liang Ban Ji is one of the best representations of Sichuan food you can find. And it’s one of my personal favorites.
2. Rabbit fried with Peppers (双椒兔 – Shuang Jiao Tu)
Chengdu’ers predilection for rabbit (not just the head) make it one of the iconic foods of the city. While a roast rabbit is good at any time a ‘double pepper fried rabbit’ highlights the lean, flavorful meat’s versatility. Here fried with red and green pepper, fresh Sichuan pepper, garlic and ginger its spicy, tingly and fragrant. A good fried rabbit is not as easy to find in the city as it used to be, but the suburbs and towns to the east (XiHe, LongQuan, HuangTu etc.) are full of tasty rabbit joints.
3. Smoked Sausage (腊香肠 – La Xiang Chang)
Spiced, dried, smoked pork sausages. How can you go wrong? So salty and smokey with a just the right amount of kick and Sichuan pepper, the sausages are steamed or fried and served on their own. The only problem with this dish is that it’s not available all year round – as we explained, all smoked meats in Sichuan are made in the winter and an important part of the traditional Chines New Year’s feast. This is one thing that keeps me looking forward to winter all year round.
4. Spiced Steamed Beef (粉蒸牛肉 – Fen Zheng Niu Rou)
One of the classic dishes of Leshan, this steamed beef dish is as tender as they come. The beef is coated in ground rice and spices and steamed inside bamboo steamers then garnished with garlic, chili powder and cilantro before serving. Delicately fragrant and sweet with only a subtle hint of chilis even those people not into ‘mala‘ can get into this. Steaming beef is just something you don’ hear much about, but this proves its a great idea.
5. Sichuan Dumplings in Chili Oil (红油抄手 – Hong You Chao Shou)
Not to be confused with a ‘jiaozi‘ or the classic steamed dumplings of China, Chao Shou is a particularly Sichuanese version – it is wrapped in a folded crescent shape, and filled with only pork and ginger. The flavor comes from the delicate sweet, spicy and garlicy sauce it is served on. This is a great way to taste and experience the chili oil famous to the cuisine and handmade by each chef in a context that emphasizes its subtle flavors as well as its spice. Also, dumplings in all their forms are just awesome and delicious.
6. Wood Fire Chicken (柴火鸡 – Chai Huo Ji)
I’ve talked a lot about Wood Fire Chicken lately, and done my best to help spread the word, but I couldn’t write this list without including it again. It’s just that good. A whole, freshly killed chicken is fried with ginger and fresh Sichuan pepper, then stewed in fermented bean paste, pickled chilis, garlic, ginger, and pickles along with potatoes and green beans. The kitchen is your table – a wood-fired brick and stone stove (or zaotai), with a perfectly seasoned giant wok set into its surface. Each table has its own cook who also slaps cornbread momos (pancakes) on the side of the pan to steam a few minutes before serving. It has all the flavors, and all the smokey atmosphere you can ask for + pancakes for dipping.
7. Fish Mint (折耳根 – Zhe Er Gen)
Houttuynia Cordata is a plant I’ve talked about before for its polarizing qualities but its something you have to taste for yourself when you are here. It is unique in both flavor and texture – citrusy and pungent with an almost felt-like feeling on the tongue. I think the leaves are delicious lightly tossed in chili oil, vinegar and garlic. It might not be for everyone, but it is specific to this area and must be tried while you are here – even if you don’t love it.
Let us know what you think of these dishes, and what else you would have us add!
This is by no means an exhaustive list and we will be creating many more, profiling different dishes we love. Stay tuned.