I am a notoriously picky eater, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The list of things I won’t eat is far longer than what I do enjoy and it’s an added level of complexity when I travel, sometimes. As difficult as I am to cook for, I’ve actually had little trouble traveling around the world finding something to eat. There are some exceptions to this of course, and I’m not ashamed to say that on more than one occasion the only viable option was Pizza Hut or McDonalds. It’s an aspect to traveling in Mainland China that worried me and I frankly didn’t know what to expect before my first trip there a couple of months ago as part of a project with Cathay Pacific Airways. I’ve already written about this (read the post here) so I’m not going to rehash old content, but needless to say I was surprised at the diversity of food I discovered and how much of it I truly enjoyed. Nowhere was this more true than in Chengdu, a city famous for its food in a country already obsessed with what they eat.
What you should know about Chengdu
China loves to eat, a lot. Life revolves around your next meal and is a major aspect of hospitality throughout this massive country. So when a city in China is well known above all others for its epicurean delights, you know you’ve found a place that takes its cuisine very seriously indeed. The capital of the Sichuan Province, it seems that Chengdu has always enjoyed this reputation, combining locally sourced ingredients and infusing them with its powerful spicy heat that is now loved around the world. That heat comes from the Sichuan pepper, which has an intense fragrant flavor that produces what the books call a “tingly-numbing” sensation. I should at this point probably mention that I don’t like spicy food, at all. I think it’s genetics, but I have zero tolerance for anything spicier than ketchup, so I rightfully feared what lay in store for me in Chengdu. My first real introduction into the culinary scene in Chengdu was through a personal favorite method, meandering around a street market.
Jinli Street is an admittedly touristy place, but it turns out that it has been that way for millennia – seriously. This long and narrow street today is full of vendors, shops and important for me, food stalls. Walking around was heaven, smelling the strange and unusual scents and asking my interpreter countless times what everything was. From pork buns to pineapple sticky rice to roasted rabbit head, I was mesmerized by everything and wish I could somehow taste it all. Since I was in Chengdu, the capital of heat, I decided to throw caution to the wind and try some of their spicy foods. While I’m not an adventurous eater, I do believe in trying local favorites whenever I can, which is how I ended up ordering potato wedges that were red from the generous spice mix they had been dredged through. Gingerly taking my first bite it seemed ok so I took more and more and then the heat started to kick in and I understood finally what “tingly-numbing” means in actual practice. It was hot, no doubt there, but it wasn’t painful and slowly my mouth and taste buds started to recover from the full frontal assault and we continued walking around the picturesque market area.
A well-seasoned beef bun was a safe option for my main course, but as is always the case for me, I was most curious about desserts. I didn’t expect to find the kind of sweet diversity that I discovered in China, and Chengdu was no exception. After sampling a few bites of different desserts, I finally settled on the large and delicious pineapple sticky rice. Glutinous rice mixed in with cooked pineapple was just the kind of finish I needed for my afternoon of spice and more spice, finally giving my tongue that break it so badly needed. The sticky rice was delicious and filling, much more filling than I would have thought and it made sense to me finally why I’d seen so many people eating only that for lunch. Filling, sort of healthy and tasty – it is the perfect light lunch.
Hot Pot Experience
Chengdu is known for its spice, but it’s also famous for a very particular way of cooking – the hot pot. I like to think of the Chinese hot pot as a type of fondue. There are specific hot pot restaurants, and each table in them is equipped with inlaid pots and cookers, just like at fondue restaurants I’ve been to here in the States. I was led through this process through new friends I made, staff at The Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu. Knowing that I wanted to experience traditional Chengdu cuisine, they took an evening out of their lives – their free time – to take me to their favorite hot pot restaurant in town and teach me the proper way to enjoy this iconic dish. It was an incredibly touching gesture, one that still means a lot to me. The hot pot process though is fairly simple. Diners select the meats and vegetables they want to cook in the pots along with the type of stock. In Chengdu, this means a broth that is literally teeming with those red Sichuan peppers.
It was an easy process to learn, dropping the meat into the simmering broth, waiting for it to cook, removing it and lightly dipping it into oil to remove some of the spicy heat before eating it. It was a fun experience but a spicy one, more than once tears welled up in my eyes but I loved the dinner. Hot pot is about the great food, but it’s also about the camaraderie, the conversation and being together with friends. Being in that restaurant, clearly a local and not a tourist favorite, I felt like I had been let into a secret, another piece of the puzzle in understanding the city.
Eating in Chengdu though isn’t all about street markets and peppers, just as in the other Chinese mega-cities, there is a strong fine dining landscape led by luxury hotels. Unlike hotels in the US, hotels in Asia and especially China feature amazing food prepared by well-known chefs in restaurants that routinely earn international praise. Hotel restaurants are the stars of fine dining in China, and not the afterthought as they are in some other parts of the world. A good example of this is the dinner I enjoyed while staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Chengdu; one of my new favorite hotels anywhere in the world. Enjoying dinner in their restaurant Li Xuan, I sampled many dishes featuring their unique fusion of Cantonese and Sichuanese cuisine. Slow-cooked Wagyu Beef Short Ribs, traditional stews and teas and some amazing desserts, playfully featuring the city’s love of Mah-Jong. Perched high above the city enjoying the amazing views, it was a lovely dinner and a great introduction into what fine dining means in Chengdu.
There’s a lot of variation in Chengdu when it comes time to find something to eat, and any visitor should take the time to sample all of its variations. Food is arguably the most important aspect of the travel experience no matter where we go, but that’s especially true when visiting the large but interesting city of Chengdu, China.