CHENGDU some like it hot
Ordinarily the good citizens of the Sichuan capital are cool-headed and relaxed— they’ve no time for the hustle of their Shanghai counterparts, no appetite for the bean-counting of the folk up in Beijing. Chengdu’s drizzly days and steamy nights mean they’ve no reason to get a sweat on unnecessarily.
Unless they’re chowing down, that is, in which case they might get a little hot under the collar.
Sichuan—in southeast China, its fifth largest province—is the size of mainland Spain. And like Spain, rain falls mainly on the plain … alluvial plain, that is, which forms the fertile basin of its eastern half. This is one of the country’s least sunny, most humid regions and it’s an agricultural powerhouse, producing GDP-balancing quantities of rice, maize, sugarcane, peanuts and tangerines. The drier west (on the other side of centrally-located Chengdu) is mostly Tibetan Plateau foothill reaching heights of up to 7.5km. This wall of mountain kettles moist air over the capital’s 18 million citizens who flip flop through sticky summers and damp winters.
It is these wet, sun-starved conditions that helped shape Sichuan cuisine, one of the ‘Four Great Schools’ of regional Chinese culinary tradition. According to Chinese medicine such a climate knocks the body’s yin–yang out of kilter. An imbalance that is remedied by a pungent diet—the kind of food the people here crave all year round, oily and spicy, made from an apothecary cabinet of chilli bean paste and fermented black beans, scallion, ginger and garlic, zhenjiang black vinegar, and principally chilli pepper (dried, pickled or in oil) and Sichuan peppercorn.
Pushed to the side and rarely eaten, the chilli pepper is used generously in many Sichuan dishes—so generously that you might wonder if locals enjoy hunting for their food. As the old joke could go, “How did you find your meal?”
“Well, I bulldozed a mountain of chilli and there it was!”
In Chengdu restaurants—swanky or ‘fly’ (as greasy spoons are known)—you can ask for your food anywhere from non-spicy, buyaola, to old hot (meaning hot-as-hell), laola. But however you take your la, or chilli heat, when it’s paired with some ma ‘numbness’ then the flavour profile (like the province’s terrain) moves from undulating upland to precipitous peaks.
The Sichuan peppercorn provides that unexpected dimension to a cuisine which is already complex. The Chinese call this prickly-ash berry huajiao (or ‘flower pepper’), probably because it resembles a peppercorn that eventually opens with little ‘petals’. But it could also be from the aroma: a potpourri of citrus, rose, bayleaf, pepper. And once tasted, those are the initial flavours too. But give it a moment and something peculiar happens. From the lips to the tip of the tongue, and then throughout the mouth, there’s a tingle, pins-and-needles, something like the buzz a 9-volt battery gives when its terminals are licked.
This sensation is caused by a compound called sanshool tickling the nerves that normally only respond to light touch. When combined with some stimulation of the mouth’s heat receptors (which chilli’s equivalent compound capsaicin likes to do) it makes the idiosyncratic mala (‘hot and numbing’) style.
An exemplary mala dish, mapo doufu—‘pock-marked old woman’s tofu’—is reputed to have been the creation of a certain Madame Chen Liu, who took over the running of her husband’s restaurant (near Chengdu’s Wanfu Bridge) in the 1860s, and quickly found a following.
Today’s Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant (visited this branch) claims direct lineage from that stuff-of-legend eatery and, in Wenshufang district, is just a stone’s throw from the original site. Brusque, unfussy service belies the focus of its busy kitchen. A quick peek reveals a gang of chefs going hammer and tongs over jet-powered gas burners. Cauldron-sized woks with stews bubbling like magma. Fire blankets on the wall, presumably in case the sauces combust.
Its mapo doufu is a startlingly sophisticated dish: fragile tofu (from the same maker, dating back to 1865) in a brawny, oily sauce that is almost sweet, ‘gritty’ with huajiao, and swimming in umami. Unusually they use minced beef rather than pork—dry-fried separately till it’s grainy, so adding more texture. The mala hum kicks in after two mouthfuls, chilli and Sichuan peppercorn surging in see-saw waves.
Chen Mapo Doufu sits in the middle of a touristic but nonetheless appealing tangle of reinvigorated nineteenth-century Qing-era lanes. Just along central Wenshuyuan Street a ‘fly restaurant’ has a mouthful of a name—Dongzikou Zhanglao’er Liangfen—but it’s an archetypical xiao chi, or ‘small eats’, kitchen with a room of rickety tables and low stools on one side and a hatch to the street on the other.
Through the kitchen’s glass walls, the peckish (ie, anyone passing, but especially those who’ve just bought a ticket inside) watch saucers of al dente mung-bean jelly noodles haphazardly sploshed with spoonfuls of chilli oil and huajiao, ground sesame and meat jelly, and topped with a nibble of granulated sugar.
With the same on-the-go satisfaction as espresso drinkers at an Italian cafe’s bar, Chengdu folk are handed their saucer through the hatch and stand on the street for a moment—or perhaps even sit on their scooters (not quite Vespas)—to slurp up the three or four restorative mouthfuls of tian shui mian, or ‘sweet-water noodles’.
Opposite, Wenshuyuan monastery is the ancient pillar of this neighbourhood, dating back more than a millennium it has seen the Song and Ming dynasties, republics and revolutions, and the introduction of the chilli pepper in the sixteenth century by Portuguese ships arriving at Macao. Its restaurant offers Buddhist vegetarian cooking which is less reliant on mala, with items such as tea-smoked or pickled tofu, dry-pot lotus root, braised cabbage with ya cai fermented mustard greens, and occasionally cold dishes dressed with a classic guaiwei or ‘strange sauce’, a balanced melding of mala, sour (often black vinegar, sometimes citrus), sesame paste and raw sesame, and pungent garlic and scallion.
A couple of nearby old-school bakeries use Sichuan peppercorn in equally strange if restrained ways. Wenshuyuan Bakery’s longan cake has a fudgy filling underlined by a slow Sichuan pepper fizzle. And around the corner at Gongting Pastry Shop, the salt-and-huajiao-speckled cookies are a fine accompaniment to bitan piaoxue tea, the uncommon ‘snowflake’ jasmine green tea grown near Mount Emei some 140km south of Chengdu.
Wenshufang district sits in the northern quarter of downtown Chengdu—a 12 square kilometre slab bounded by the Jin river and its tributaries. In the west the buzzy neighbourhood around the Kuan and Zhai (‘Wide and Narrow’) Alleys finds crowded courtyard teahouses and streetfood stalls serving traditional and new-wave flavours, think stinky tofu on sticks or huajiao ice cream. While on the east side the Daci Temple district appeals to those looking for time and space to explore its branded restaurants and upscale boutiques. And, at the heart of it all on vast Tianfu Square, a statue of Chairman Mao waves to allcomers—famously fond of the chilli pepper, he once claimed it is the food of a true revolutionary!
In 1934, while Mao and the Red Army were on the ‘Long March’ episode of China’s Civil War, Fernand Petiot devised the Bloody Mary at New York’s St Regis hotel. It’s a cocktail that finds signature variations around the world these days. At their Chengdu property, a short march from Mao’s statue, the bar’s Chuan Mary is made by shaking up the original recipe with a heap of huajiao, soy sauce and splashes of green tabasco for extra ‘ooh la la’.
Innovation continues in the St Regis kitchen where chef Mike Li explores ingredients that can withstand the onslaught of classic recipes and seasonings: suckling pig, salmon, foie gras. He begins his day however with a simple streetside bowl of dandan mian—the iconic mala dish of slippery wheat noodles with nutty, oily minced pork—which he prefers not too punchy at such an early hour. He equates it to infants being introduced to hot and numbing food. “Always start out unambitiously.” He says. “As soon as youngsters are on solids, we treat them to morsels with just a pinch of chilli and huajiao.”
Li uses the three types of huajiao across his menu: dried red, dried green (moderately milder) and fresh green, still on the twig. Duck meat might call for a robust red peppercorn (many in Chengdu add citrusy young ginger too), while a delicate river fish will suit the fresh huajiao more.
At Wukuaishi, the city’s principle spice market, every surface is coated in a fine vermillion dust, even the shoulders of traders who spend their days hauling hessian bags of ginger, star anise, cinnamon, chillis and, of course, all types and grades of huajiao. Sacks are piled high, some rolled open to reveal lipstick-red fresh pepper and crimson huajiao. A caravan of trucks and pickups, axles squeaking with huajiao-clumped oil, squeeze through the gateways all day long.
“When I’m choosing my huajiao,” Chengdu-native and cook Tony Yang explains, “I look at the colour and consistency of the peppercorns first. Then I like to take a few huajiao, roll them lightly between my hands, and smell my empty palms. Warmth brings out the fragrant oils.”
Yang thinks the peppercorns that come to market in the autumn are best, but chef Li is a little more pragmatic. “As long as it’s not been too wet in Hanyuan county then pretty much any time of year is okay.” Hanyuan, according to both, is where the finest huajiao comes from. “Plenty of sunshine,” says Yang, “… and the perfect terroir.”
Hanyuan huajiao finds its way into several drinks at Jing—bar of understated, urbane The Temple Hotel in Daci district—and none more so than the Sichuan Mule, a take on the classic vodka, lime and ginger beer mix. In this instance the vodka is infused with huajiao. “It takes just two days for the peppercorns to share their flavours,” barman Desmond tells me. “We don’t make it too spicy. We want a drink that ‘glows’.” And he indicates a recently-prepared bottle behind the counter—a third full of peppercorns then topped up with the spirit which has already turned soft amber.
The hotel’s Mi Xun teahouse epitomises the Chengdu way. An elegant, unhurried space around an away-from-it-all courtyard, stocking teas from across China. One of its finest is the meng ding gan lu from Sichuan’s Ya’an county. The name means ‘honey dew from atop Meng Mountain’ which accurately expresses its fresh sweetness, an upshot of being dried and rolled three times. The silvery green leaves are added to the pot after the water. “Be careful!” the waitress warns, with words that sound a little lost in Chengdu. “Water no more than 85C—we don’t want to scorch it!”
Published 2018, 2021
Google map references indicate approximate locations—at all times be aware of your safety and the safety of others around you as these locations may be near to roads and other situations which may be dangerous
How to do it
Dongzikou Zhanglao'er Liangfen 39 Wenshuyuan Street Open 10am to 10pm Most come for a saucer of tian shui mian, sweet-water noodles, sliced from a (gluten-free) mung-bean jelly; other options include huang liangfen, ‘yellow noodles’ cut into long, thick triangles, and dan dan mian with beef. Eat in or on the street.
Chen Mapo Doufu 29 Wenshuyuan Street Open 10am to 10pm One dish defines this boisterous restaurant: mapo doufu, following the same recipe (and using ingredients from the same suppliers) for 150 years. The service is haphazard perhaps, some other dishes ordinary, but the signature is world class.
Wenshuyuan Bakery 17 Toufu Street and Gongting Pastry Shop 9 Jiangyanggongsuo Street Nearby bakeries easily spotted by the queues: Gongting has a picture menu of its several dozen varieties of cakes and cookie (each has a reference number, or simply ask for the jiaoyan salt-and-huajiao cookies!) Wenshuyuan’s ‘tea sweets’ include xuehuasu ‘snow flower’ (a crumbly pastry with pork floss and scallion) or xianhuabing ‘fresh flower cake’, a rose-fragrance pastry.
Heming Teahouse People’s (Renmin) Park, 12 Shaocheng Road Open 10am–10pm While relaxing by the lake at the People’s Park’s Heming Teahouse, you might be approached by a man with some fluffy sticks and what looks like a miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead. For about Y25 he will spend 10 minutes meticulously cleaning out your ears – and enthral those sitting around you, keen to see what treasure he may discover in there.
Wukuaishi Market Saiyuntai East 1st Road, nr junction Saiyuntai South Road Heavy with the aromas of hot fruity chillis (dried and fresh) and covered in their red dust, Wukuaishi market is Chengdu’s ‘Central Bank’ for Sichuan spices … and is the place to pick up huajiao peppercorns. Available three ways (dried red, dried green and fresh green) shop for the dried variety the way locals do: closely inspect the peppercorns (a good colour, no sign of dampness, not too many twigs or stones), and then carefully smell a palmful to ensure a bright, fresh, complex fragrance.
Mi Xun Teahouse The Temple House hotel 81 Biteshi Street Open 12pm–10pm A charming courtyard setting, Mi Xun boasts 44 Chinese teas—alongside Sichuan classics, Hangzhou Dragon Well and 10-year-old ‘ripe’ Pu’er (¥35 up for a pot), plus ‘tea sweets’ including pineapple cake (¥16)—and a menu of plant-based and vegan adaptations of regional classics (think kung pao button mushrooms, mapo doufu with tea egg, spinach noodles in dandan sauce). teahouse page • hotel site
Plus Chengdu’s cafes are undeniably the place to go for top-notch Sichuan dishes. But if you’re looking for a relaxing – perhaps even romantic – meal, some of the city’s hotels offer equally enticing local cooking in supremely comfortable surroundings. Swing by the St Regis’ ‘Yan Ting’ for superb dan dan noodles, for example. The Shangri-La’s ‘Shang Palace’ for authentic mapo tofu and “water-cooked” fish. Or the Grand Hyatt’s ‘#8’ for steaming hotpot.
Yan Ting The St Regis Chengdu 88 Taisheng Road South Open 11.30am–2pm, 5.30–10pm restaurant page • hotel site
Shang Palace Shangri-La hotel 8 Binjiang East Road Open 11.30am–2.30pm, 5.30–10pm restaurant page • hotel site