In a city known for its iconic natural landscapes, embroideries, and bronze products, Chengdu is credited with having some of the more popular dishes in Chinese cuisine. Arguably the most famous is Chengdu’s Sichuan cuisine – this particular cuisine has developed over the centuries, giving it a very distinctive flavor. Popular throughout China and increasingly in other parts of the world, Sichuan cuisine is famous for piquancy, but also for its complex flavoring. There is no shortage of delicious and fiery Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu. Most of the dishes are quite spicy, so we recommend being very specific when ordering: non-spicy (búyàolà), a little spicy (wēilà) or ‘old’ (very) spicy (laola). For people eating Sichuan cuisine for the very first time, the spiciness can be rather overwhelming, even if you ordered wēilà so have a bottle of sweetened soy milk or milk handy to quell the ‘fire’ in your mouth. Trust us, it works better than water. However if you are used to the spiciness of cuisines like Indian or Thai food, Sichuan cuisine should be a stroll in the park for you.
That being said, most spicy Sichuan dishes use a large amount of Sichuan pepper, which causes your mouth to become somewhat numb. So if you like spicy food but don’t like the idea of a numb mouth, you should specify bu yao huajiao(no pepper). However the inclusion of Sichuan pepper gives the dishes a citrusy flavor and is the trademark of an authentic Sichuan dish. Here are some of the more popular typical Sichuan dishes:
Ma Po Tofu – This dish is a combination of tofu (bean curd) set in a spicy chili-and-bean based sauce, typically a thin, oily, and bright red suspension, and often cooked with minced meat, usually pork or beef. A favorite with many Chinese people, this dish is present on any Chinese restaurant’s menu. The name of this dish is sometimes translated as “Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu”. Legend has it that a pock-marked old widow (má pó) lived in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Due to her economic standing, her home was placed on the outskirts of the city. By coincidence, it was near a road where traders often passed. Although the rich merchants could afford to stay within the numerous inns of the prosperous city while waiting for their goods to sell, poor farmers would stay in cheaper inns scattered along the sides of roads on the outskirts of the ancient city. She ran a restaurant where customers could order by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and most importantly mouthwatering spicy. An authentic Mapo Tofu is spicy with both conventional “heat” spiciness and the characteristic “mala” (numbing spiciness) flavor of Szechuan cuisine. The feel of the particular dish is often described by patrons as numbing, spicy hot, hot (temperature), fresh, tender and soft, aromatic, and flaky. These seven characteristics are considered to be the most defining of authentic Mapo Tofu.
Kung Pao Chicken – This is a classic dish in Sichuan cuisine, and is believed to have originated in the Sichuan Province of central-western China. Popular in China and all over the world, there are two versions of this dish, the original Sichuan version and the westernized version. The original Sichuan version uses chicken as its primary ingredient and in this original version, diced chicken is typically mixed with a prepared marinade. The wok is seasoned and chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns then are flash fried to add fragrance to the oil. After which the chicken is stir fried with vegetables and peanuts. For the authentic Kung Pao Chicken dish, only Sichuan-style chili peppers are used but the most important component of the dish is handfuls of Sichuan peppercorns which gives it the distinctive authentic Sichuan flavor.
Hot Pot – When people think of Chengdu, hot pot immediately comes to mind. Considered as the spiciest food in Chengdu, this dish actually originated in Chongqing, so technically it is not really original Chengdu cuisine but seeing that it is such a popular dish, we’ve included it. The hotpot is basically a big pot of soup and spices simmering in a hole in the middle of your table. Customers can choose different soups ranging from simple spicy to moderate, three or four kinds of spices, as well as fish head hotpot, medical herbs hotpot, etc. You then cook whichever ingredients you’ve picked such as, meats, vegetables and other add-ins. Some of the more popular ingredients include: lamb, mushrooms, beef, tofu, quail eggs, potatoes and various others (pork, green vegetables, fish balls, carrots, and even pig’s brain!) When you choose a spicy hot pot, bear in mind that the soup is NOT for drinking; simply cook the ingredients in the soup and eat them. Why? The level of spiciness is mind blowing, in fact it is too spicy even for locals to drink!