4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Chengdu”

The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

How Pandas Won Me Over (by Carmen)

Happy panda

Happy panda

We were not going to see the pandas. They may be one of the major attractions of Sichuan but we would not be swayed. “They are endangered! They’re so cute! You can even hold one!” These exclamations would not move us. At least we thought.

Panda laterns

Panda laterns in the shopping area

But we had some extra time in Chengdu. In our walks around the city we saw panda faces everywhere as they are the symbol of the region.  Maybe it was subliminal messaging. Eventually a couple of travelers invited us to share a taxi with them and before we knew it we were on our way to watch some black and white bears roll around.

Panda doing what it does best

Panda doing what it does best

Turns out they really are cute. Ridiculously so. These huge bears just sit around eating bamboo all day and seem to smile about it. Despite their size, they almost seem vulnerable with their slow movements and dopey looks. Nathan kept saying they look like giant stuffed animals come to life. An apt description.

Yep, more eating time

Yep, more eating time

They eat about 40kg of bamboo a day which at their pace takes a looong time.  As a special treat the sanctuary gives them little mooncakes filled with grains and vitamins.  I like how the pandas have a Chinese diet.

Progression of baby panda growth

Progression of baby panda growth (Photo credit: Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center)

Of course the cutest pandas are the mini-versions – the babies! Well, they’re not cute when they just come out. They are pink little rat looking things.  Pandas have one of the highest mortality rates.  Their cubs are born weighing only 90g (3oz).  The mothers sometimes crush the little guys since they are so fragile.  Oops.

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Play time

Play time

But then they grow into little fluff balls that just want to climb things and gnaw on their mother all day.  You can imagine the oohs and ahhs coming from the crowd as we all watched this play session.  You are allowed to hold these tiny guys but it costs somewhere around $200 for just a couple minutes of time.

Sleeping in the tree

Sleeping in the tree

Playful teenagers

Playful teenagers

Even the teenagers are adorable and perhaps even more playful. Since they’re a little bigger they can get into some mischief like toppling their sleeping friend out of a tree just for the fun of it.  But they’re resilient.  I watched one fall from a tall branch and just shake it off.

Red panda

Red panda

Did you know that pandas come in red too? Kinda. They are a fraction of the size and remind me more of a racoon than a panda. But apparently they’re related and have a spot at the sanctuary. However, they definitely don’t get the same love as their black and white cousins.

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

So we didn’t buy any panda hats or sweaters or tails, all of which are available at the many gift shops. Not that we’ll wear out in public anyway.  Hey, it’s easy to be won over by the panda craze.

Chengdu Do (by Carmen)

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

We were finally in Sichuan! Where bamboo forests sweep across the land. Where Tibetan culture lives strong among the rugged western mountains. Where pandas munch away happily. Where the biggest Buddah in the world lives. Where one of the four holy mountains of China juts out of the earth. Where earthquakes show their raw power. And where you can find some of the most glorious food in all the world. Of all it’s attributes, the food is what really drew us in. A whole post could be dedicated just to the food – and that is in fact what Nathan will do in the next couple weeks. But for now I am going to focus on what we did in Chengdu, the lovely capital city of Sichuan.

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Wenshu Temple building

Wenshu Temple building

Most people merely pass through Chengdu on their way to the other sights of the province, but we found ourselves plenty busy in the city itself. One of our first activities was the Wushou Temple. The peaceful grounds of this temple can make you forget your in the city. We walked among the various enclosed courtyards and watched as the orange robed monks were called to lunch via a wooden drum.

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Another cool sight was the Sichuan Museum. Quite a few other travelers we have met are anti-museum, considering them to be boring or something. I am definitely not in agreement. I love museums – the calm and quiet atmosphere, the (hopefully) interesting displays, and the act of learning and gaining new knowledge. At the Sichuan Museum we viewed elegant pottery, extremely delicate embroidery, cut paper arts, shadow puppetry and intricate bronzeware some of which was 2500 years old! Through these artifacts I gained a greater appreciation for local culture. All for free – good deal.

Green Ram Temple

Green Ram Temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Near the museum is the Green Ram Temple which is part of the Taoist religion. Taoism is not a religion I know much about. From what I read, it is based on a few ambiguous texts written in the in the 6th century BC. But they do embrace the yin yang which I totally decorated my notebooks with in middle school. So I get that ; )

River by night

River by night

By night we did something we had not yet attempted in China – riding a bicycle. Twenty years ago bicycles were the symbol of the country. Everyone has seen those pictures of thousands of Chinese cyclists pedalling down the street. But no longer. The electric scooter has taken over as the way to get around making cycling a less safe endeavour. But we decided to go for it, at night no less, because it was part of a group that our hostel had organized. So the guide, Nathan, me and seven Spaniards crisscrossed the city, avoiding scooters and snapping pictures.

Us with our new friend Eric

Us with our new friend Eric

Sichuan University

Sichuan University

The next day we met up with a new friend, Eric, who we happened to meet while travelling in Yuanyang. He teaches English in Chengdu and graciously showed us around for a day to see some sights including the Sichuan University and the Tibetan neighborhood.

Chengdu market

Chengdu market

Me and my sweet tamal

Me and my sweet tamal

While we were walking around we happened upon a market where they were selling fresh produce as well as a few snacks. Even though we had just feasted on some dumplings I couldn’t pass up a special steamed dough wrapped in a corn husk. It looked like a sweet tamal, one of my favorite Mexican treats. And to my surprise it tasted like one!

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Later we chilled out Sichuan style in the lovely Heming Tea House in the People’s Park. Nathan ordered the popular chrysanthemum tea with goji berries which comes out with big rock sugar cubes at the bottom. People love to hang out at the tea houses to gamble, chat and/or get their ears cleaned by the professional cleaners walking around. Everyone who comes to Sichuan has to do one of these things. I decided on the simple tea and chat option.

The regal court in the Chinese opera

The regal court in the Chinese opera

Close up of an opera singer

Close up of an opera singer

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Another specialty of Sichuan is the opera. It is supposed to be very dramatic with a special masks painted with colorful, elaborate expressions. They have a technique that allows them to switch the masks in a fraction of a second. And the Sichuan opera has fire breathers and acrobatic flips (take that Madame Butterfly!). We were excited to attend the opera matinee performance but as we settled in for the show we realized we had made a mistake. We were indeed at the opera but it was not a Sichuan one. No masks, no fire, no acrobats…and where’s the fun in that? Instead we were at a simple performance where the most dramatic act was when one character shook her feather headdress at another character. And if you’ve never heard Chinese opera it isn’t exactly melodious. After three hours of tolerating the screeching and hoping for fire, I had to concede that the language barrier had cheated us out of the Sichuan opera we wanted. Oh well.

Funny chow chow

Funny chow chow

Bottomless pants

Bottomless pants

The opera is just one way to be entertained in Chengdu. Another is simply to walk the streets. On our meanderings we encountered plenty of oddly shaved dogs, including a hilarious chow chow that ran inside after we started laughing. And then there are the bottomless children. I agree this is a much more frugal and ecological way to handle child bathroom needs compared to diapers. But I don’t appreciate the fact that parents let their kids pee and poop anywhere they please. It’s simply not hygenic. I don’t know what the answer is but in the meantime being mooned by tiny butts all day is pretty amusing.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

If you’ve walked around too much then it’s time for another tea house. The River Viewing Park was a particularly pretty garden. It was filled with cozy tea corners where one could watch the bamboo grow.

Global Center

Global Center

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Contrasting to the cozy green parks are the ubiquitous large office parks and freeways at the edge of the city center. This is the case with all Chinese cities but Chengdu is attempting a bit of one-upmanship with the Global Center. We passed it on the bus and it is HUGE. 1.5 million square meters of floor space, which is bigger than the current tallest building in the world. It supposed to be filled with hotels, shopping, fake beaches, and fake villages all lit with fake sunlight. Pretty much the epitome of Chinese tourism.

Bookworm Literary Festival

Bookworm Literary Festival

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Back in Chengdu city center, we had a lucky coincidence. At the expat-oriented bookstore called Bookworm, the month of March is dedicated to hosting a literary festival. By chance, we were in town to hear an author I admire give a talk. Jen Lin-Liu wrote Serve the People, a memoir about life and food in China. I loved how in the book she worked with dumpling wrappers, noodle makers, home cooks and even high end restaurateurs to get the story behind the food and delve deeper into the culture. She is publishing a new book in July about her travels following the origins of the noodle along the Silk Road. Sounds awesome and I can’t wait.

See, even in the non-food post on Chengdu I can’t help but mention it! I’ve covered pretty much all the things we found to do in Chengdu except one – pandas! They were so adorable they’re getting a post of their own. So stay tuned for the rest of our Sichuan adventures.

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