Chengdu: Hot Spot
Chengdu is a big, bustling Chinese city that takes its free time – as well as its food – super seriously.
Words and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
It’s a teeming tangle of streets and alleys – especially when evening arrives and people clock off from work or sightseers roll up, hungry and thirsty. That’s when the air is filled with the growls of snarled-up traffic, the honk of horns and tinkling bicycle bells, an occasional whiff of incense and the haze of savoury smoke from grilling meats. But, above all, the evening air carries the recurrent hint of something spicy, zesty, fragrant.
This is Wenshuyuan district, one of Chengdu’s leisure-and-culture hubs. Focused on Manjushri Monastery (also known as the Wenshu Monastery), it’s a bustling mishmash of trinket stalls, eateries, booksellers, snack shops, teahouses and street hawkers. There’s been a temple here since the 7th century (today’s structures date from the late 17th), and it lends an authenticity to this neighbourhood that has in reality only looked like this for a decade or two.
And that spicy, zesty fragrance? It’s from the unique fusion of chilli and Sichuan peppercorn that underscores both the aroma and above all the taste of much of the regional cuisine. That taste is known as mala, or ‘numbing heat’, and it comes from the chilli’s fire and a curious effect of the huajiao (as the Chinese know the Sichuan peppercorn). It’s a unique lip- and tongue-numbing tingle. When the two ingredients hit a hot wok, the fragrance – a blend of the chilli’s fruity pungency and the peppercorn’s floral notes – is unmistakeable.
But when you eat a mala dish – as you might want to at Dongzikou Zhang Lao’er Liangfen, opposite Manjushri Monastery – the taste, that unique sensation, is both surprising and intriguing. Dongzikou Zhang Lao’er Liangfen is a classic Chengdu ‘fly restaurant’ as locals call a hole-in-the-wall, as-cosy-as-a-closet eatery. They dish out little bowls of satisfying cu mian wheat noodles (the dense, al dente variety) in a selection of guises – all based around the mala flavour. Hand your receipt in to the glass-walled kitchen, and then watch the cook splash a sequence of sauces, powders and oils over them…The bowl looks as splashily artistic as a Jackson Pollock canvas and is the culinary equivalent of such painterly creativity. You can enjoy this work of art at a little table inside, or as some locals do by slurping up the noodles ‘on the hoof’, by standing outside watching the world go by in between mouthfuls. The dish of choice at Dongzikou Zhang Lao’er Liangfen is tian shui mian, sweet-water noodles – it’s moreishly savoury, sweet, spicy and utterly satisfying. A paragon of Sichuan cooking.
Just a few doors along, Chen Mapo Doufu offers another equally impressive opportunity to explore mala…and through a classic dish that’s on menus around the world, but that is rarely instilled with such a sophisticated melding of flavours and textures: mapo tofu. The story goes that it’s named after a late 19th-century restaurateur whose joint near Chengdu’s Wanfu Bridge really took off when she introduced this spicy tofu dish. Her name was Madame Chen, and Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant claims direct descent from her.
Pock-marked old lady’s tofu’, as it translates, is a deceptively complex dish. It’s more than just spicy tofu. As silken, bland bean curd in a gritty, oily sauce, it’s a taste journey through textures and flavours, and the ideal (if possibly addictive) way to explore the mala effect.
Mapo tofu exemplifies how Chengdu people like their food: spicy and oily. As far as they’re concerned, it’s beneficial for the body’s yin and yang. The damp, oft overcast climate is good for the province’s rice, sweet potato and wheat crops, but undermines the body’s hot–cold balance. Fortunately, pungent cookery helps rectify that. And though the food is fiery, Sichuan folk are a cool, relaxed crowd – taking life at a slower, more considered pace than their Beijing or Shanghai compatriots.
Once all the Wenshuyuan tofu and noodles have been scoffed, consider heading around the corner onto Toufu Street, which is end-to end teahouses that spill out onto the pavement with comfy bamboo chairs. Near the junction with Wuyuegong Street, Wenshuyuan Bakery serves some delicious cakes and breads, as does nearby Gongting Pastry Shop. The big queues attest to that. Try Gongting’s salt-and-huajiao cookies – they’re good to nibble on with a Sichuan tea, especially bitan piaoxue, the famed ‘snowflake’ jasmine green tea grown near Mt Emei, some 200km south of Chengdu.
In the centrally located People’s Park, Heming Teahouse occupies a handsome spot in the shade of trees and a zigzagging covered walkway at the edge of the central lake. Servers take orders (and cash first) for a selection of teas listed on multilingual menu cards (priced from ¥15). And once the tea arrives (accompanied by a flask of hot water), kick back and do what the locals do: chat and laugh; pick at peanuts (or salty cookies); watch day-trippers circumnavigate the lake in paddle boats; or simply lose yourself for a moment watching willow tree leaves stroke the rippling water.
A 15-minute stroll from the park, the Kuanxiangzi (or ‘Wide Alley’) and Zhaixiangzi (‘Narrow Alley’) neighbourhood of ‘reimagined’ courtyard shophouses, cafés and galleries is a lively destination day and night. Little garden teahouses (completely at the opposite end of the scale to vast Heming) are discreet settings in which to sample Sichuan teas – and to help digest some of the myriad snacks that are available here from stinky tofu and grilled rabbit to chilli-speckled ice cream. Sure, this district is firmly aimed at the tourist – but the Chinese tourist, so it’s still curious fun for those of us from further afield.
The Chinese would use the term renao to describe the street life in and around Kuanxiangzi, Wenshuyuan and Chengdu’s other recreation districts. It’s tricky to translate, but it suggests an exhilarating, infectious liveliness – and despite its laid-back laissez-faire attitude, Chengdu has renao by the truckload. Look at the boutiques and restaurants in the Taikoo Li precinct adjacent to Daci Temple in the centre-east quarter of the city: they draw Chengdu’s chichi crowd, but there’s a similar energising buzz here too. Fine places to chow down are plentiful – but the prices are perhaps a little steeper than the ¥7 it costs for the sweet-water noodles or ¥10 for a mind- (and taste bud-) blowing bowl of dan dan noodles at the eateries opposite Manjushri Monastery.
Nonetheless, at Mi Xun Teahouse (the courtyard restaurant of the coolly luxurious Temple House hotel) the kitchen turns out yummy vegetarian dishes that highlight locally sourced, organic ingredients, such as tofu with lightly pickled ya cai (a south Sichuan favourite) or stir-fried vermicelli with carrot and celery. Healthy, delicious and, at only ¥20 for a small dish, supremely affordable.
My Mi Xun server recommends a cleansing tea to accompany the food – which has a mild mala element. “Meng ding gan lu is dried and rolled three times,” she explains, “and that gives the leaf its silvery whiteness. But be careful! Water no more than 85°C otherwise the tea might be scorched!” Drinking tea must be taken seriously.
That’s the Chengdu way. Carefully, calmly, with an eye on flavour, and a focus on the quality of ingredients – and the quality of life.
Jakarta to Chengdu
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From Colours January 2017
5 Senses – Taste
DAN DAN NOODLES AND MAPO TOFU
Chengdu’s cafés 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’s Yan Ting for superb dan dan noodles, for example; the Shangri-La’s Shang Palace for authentic mapo tofu and ‘watercooked’ fish; or the Grand Hyatt’s #8 for steaming hotpot.