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.
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.
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).
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.
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 ;)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.