It’s getting haaaaaawt in here…And it’s going to stay that way for a while. In Chengdu people’s eating habits, as well as restaurants offerings, change based on the weather. These changes reflect seasonal availability, flavor profiles and Traditional Chinese Medicine’s approach to the body. For instance, lamb is a warming food in TCM and no one would dream of having lamb hot pot when it’s steaming out. But bitterness helps cool the body, chilis expel moisture, and vinegar and sweetness help mediate the food’s heat. Here’s our list of the best Chengdu summer-time eats – some are just tasty, some are refreshing and a few may even cool you down.
Bing Fen is the iconic Chengdu summer snack. A sort of jello made (originally) from Konjac, it is refreshing, cool, sweet and fruity. The clear jello is mixed with ice, molasses, and a variety of toppings. These can include dried fruits, diced watermelon, mung beans, fermented rice porridge, mini sticky rice balls, and rose jam. It is a great example of the term ‘Shuang 爽’ which means cool, refreshing, and revitalizing. Bing Fen is a snack on its own, and little shops pop up all over the city in the summer but it’s also commonly served at hot pot places to cool the heat. The sweetness serves to mediate the tingly ‘ma’ of the Sichuan peppercorns as well.
The second most popular sweet, summery, cooling snack is liang gao, which roughly means ‘cold cake’. Really it is more of a rice pudding. Made in a bowl, its flipped upside down and served in a cakeish shape, and drizzled with local molasses. Texture-wise it’s more puddingy than cakey, but just mildly sweet. Liang Gao is used more as a cooling accompaniment to other foods than as a dessert, but it can be found in small shops open late, and consumed after dinner if you really need a sweet course.
Noodles are noodles, and noodles are delicious and in Chengdu there are dozens of incredible varieties. In the summertime though, nothing beats a quick snack of ‘liang mian’, or cold noodles. They are served, you guessed it, cold, with bean sprouts, Sichuan vinegar and a touch of sugar and chili heat. Liang Fen, a slippery, white nooldeish strip made out of peas instead of wheat, are also delightfully cooling and fresh tasting. They are dosed in Sichuan vinegar, which cools the bit of chili oil tossed into the bowl.
Fruit is very important to the Chengdu diet, but even more-so in the summertime when more and more varieties are available. Many fruits are known to be hydrating and refreshing, and as rings true anywhere, people love to chomp down slices of watermelon on a hot day. A variety or cherries, peaches and plums add to the diversity of the fruits, the sour ones doing more to alleviate the heat. But not all fruits fight the good fight – durian and lychees, for example, are said to increase your heat and you should eat too much of them. Just sit back with a big bunch of juicy grapes and try not to ruin your shirt.
Bitter Melon & Other Bitter Greens
Bitterness has a cooling effect on the body in Chinese medicine, and bitter-melon conveniently arrives in the markets just in time to help out. It is the king of bitterness, and delightful (for some) cold, in a garlicky dressing, or fried with egg. Other summer greens, like dandelion shoots, also bring the bitterness and are used similarly to keep the heat at bay. Even if it’s not usually your thing, it’s worth giving bitters a try to round out the ‘heat profile’ of your summertime lunch.
Cold Meat Salads
Meats are generally considered to be warming dishes, but people still want to chow down on some hog even if its hot. The key is to keep the meat dishes cold, light and dressed in chilis – or in the ‘liang ban’ style. A plate of cow stomach tossed with chili oil and cilantro does the trick. Or a lean meat like rabbit works great as a veg free, protein-full salad, called ‘hongxing tuding’. Just steer clear of too much beef or lamb and the fatty smoked meats of the winter.
Or just sweat it out with Hot Pot
Sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves (or your whole shirt) and fight fire with fire. The hot, energetic atmosphere of hot pot percolates to a boil in the summer and sometimes sweating it all out with the big spice, a case of beer and some friends is just what the doctor ordered. Hit the heat head-on and sweat out all your frustrations and sins, and bath yourself in the bubbly atmosphere. Then go home and take a shower.