Culinary Hot Shot
Chengdu is a food paradise where you'll never go hungry.
The uninitiated with a low tolerance for spiciness may order the yuan yang pot, one that comes with both mala and a non-spicy broth of your choice.
The bustling Chinese city of Chengdu is known for a great many things, among them giant pandas and charming teahouses, but there is no denying that the most famous of the lot is the city’s obsession with the fiery hotpot.
A Taste of Spice
In most parts of Chengdu, the invigorating aroma of mala is constantly in the air. It comes as no surprise, seeing how there’s practically a hotpot restaurant on every other road and in most shopping malls in the city. However, as much as Chengdu people love getting a spicy fix at any time of the day – it is common to see locals tucking into a hotpot meal at 2 a.m. – there is inherently much more depth to Chengdu’s food culture than just Sichuan peppercorns and chillies.
After all, Chengdu was named as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010 – the first Asian city to receive this accolade. It is also where China’s best cooking school is situated. The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine (now a part of Sichuan Tourism University) attracts hordes of chefs and food journalists from around the world every year and imparts to them the invaluable mastery of Sichuan cooking, said to be the most complex of all Chinese cuisines. The institute counts the highly celebrated Peter Chang, a Chinese chef who owns a chain of restaurants in the United States, among its alumni members.
Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu, centrally located on Binjiang East Road, makes for the perfect launch pad to explore the city and its gastronomic delights. Helmed by Executive Sous Chef Jason Wang, the hotel’s Shang Palace is a great place to enjoy an authentic Cantonese or Sichuanese meal. Chef Wang, a Changzhou native, has nearly two decades of experience working at top hotels and was awarded the title of Chinese Cuisine Great Master in 2010.
The Grand Masters
On the topic of great chefs, two individuals in Chengdu have been garnering much praise and attention in the global food scene. The beauty of Sichuan cuisine lies not in inducing a tongue-numbing spiciness that will cause most foreigners to pant profusely while breaking into a sweat, but in the delicate balance of five key flavours – spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty – and no one else does it better than these two chefs.
At Yu’s Family Kitchen, a cosy dining establishment set in a traditional lane house along Xia Tong Ren Road, guests are treated to Chef Yu Bo’s peerless demonstration of Sichuan cuisine in its most elegant form. He takes great care to ensure that his creations are traditional, yet innovative, from the food preparation to the execution methods. His red bean bun is a dish that has been lauded for its creativity. Using a pair of scissors, Yu snips at the white bun till it resembles a hedgehog. Other signature dishes include a calligraphy brush with a tip made of pastry and minced pork, served with edible red ink.
His immaculate ability to fuse the different elements of Sichuanese cuisine into multi-textured masterpieces is heralded around the world and has even drawn world leaders like US Vice President Joe Biden to his restaurant. Guests have to pre-order their dishes when they call to make reservations, as the restaurant has no menu to speak of.
Over at Yu Zhi Lan restaurant on Changfa Street is Lan Guijun, a chef considered to be on par with Yu at the pinnacle of Chinese culinary arts. At Yu Zhi Lan, however, guests get to experience a different culinary approach, with Chef Lan leveraging flavours of foreign ingredients like Japanese marinades and olive oil to create dishes with subtle, yet resounding flavours. His tiny establishment only seats 18 guests, and like Yu’s Family Kitchen, dining there is near impossible without a reservation.
For a less traditional dining experience, Yunmen Emerald Concept Restaurant takes guests on a culinary journey paved by molecular manipulation. The restaurant is decked in colourful, gaudy furniture. Velvet curtains with golden trims and huge chandeliers hang from a ceiling full of white feathers, all of which makes for a somewhat novel experience. Although Yunmen Emerald comes with the molecular gastronomy label, it does offer a variety of cuisines, such as Sichuan, Beijing and Hunan.
Pot of Gold
Such restaurants as Yunmen Emerald Concept are said to be a nod to the city’s flourishing food culture and its new reputation as a gastronomy capital, but no trip to Chengdu would be complete without a hotpot meal. Huang Cheng Lao Ma is one of the most famous hotpot restaurants in Chengdu, a favourite of many personalities as it offers a refined dining experience both in terms of setting and food. US First Lady Michelle Obama is said to have dined here before.
The uninitiated with a low tolerance for spiciness may order the yuan yang pot, one that comes with both mala and a non-spicy broth of your choice. The mala, while spicy, is much more tolerable than that at the local eateries and the oil used in the broth is distinctively less viscous. This means that it easily slides off the ingredients that you cook, leaving behind more flavour and less spice.
A truly authentic local experience can be found at Bashu Dazhaimen Hot Pot, a lively restaurant chain bustling with activity even at midnight. Waiters are frantically rushing around taking orders, serving food and clearing tables, but service is surprisingly friendly and efficient. The prices here may be cheap, but the ingredients are clean, fresh and by no means of inferior quality. The must-order dish is the Surou, deep-fried pork fritters that can be eaten on its own or dipped into the fiery mala broth for an extra kick. Although the spiciness of the mala here is intense, even by local standards, there is still an intriguing depth of flavour.
If your stomach has had enough of the churning that inevitably accompanies a hearty mala hotpot meal, there are other variations which are easier on the palate. Yu Ling Shan Zhen on Ren Min South Road is a mushroom hotpot establishment popular with the locals. You get to choose from more than 30 different types of mushrooms to accompany a selection of hotpot broths, including chicken, pork, lamb and, of course, mala. The prices are easy on the wallet, although you would have to pay a premium for some of the rarer mushrooms.
With so many dining options for you to choose from in Chengdu, the problem is not so much about what to pick for the next meal, but whether you have enough time to savour all the delights this city has to offer. Always remember to pace yourself, because overeating is certainly going to be counterproductive in this gastronomic journey.
- Taxis may be really cheap but jump onto the Metro instead during rush hour as the roads get pretty congested.
- The soy/peanut beverage and the sesame oil and garlic dip at all hotpot restaurants help fight the fire in your mouth. Resist the urge to drink cold water.
- The food menus at local restaurants usually have no English translations and the waiters don't speak the language either, so it might be advisable to bring along a friend who speaks Mandarin.
- The best time to visit Chengdu is from March to June and from September to November, when there is low chance of rain.
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"Resist the urge to drink cold water" ...well, that's so difficult for me, but also maybe the tip to enjoy HOT Sichuan cuisine!