Sichuan Cuisine

Walking down the street in Chengdu you’ll notice that restaurants are especially numerous. Chengdu, and all of Sichuan in fact, has a collective obsession with food.

"Gong bao ji ding", also known as Kung Pao Chicken

With discerning locals who take great pride in their local cuisine and fierce competition between restaurateurs, you simply don’t ever have to worry about eating anything but great food. You might have had Sichuan food in other countries or parts of China, but we find that Sichuan food outside of this region generally bears little resemblance to the real deal.

With its heavy seasoning, Sichuan cuisine is famous for its bold and spicy flavors which are a byproduct of local peppers. If you’ve had authentic Thai, Indian, or Mexican food you shouldn’t have too much of an issue but if the spiciness does overwhelm you, soy milk (which quells the hotness better than water) is available at most restaurants.

"Hua jiao" peppers have a numbing effect

A fusion of two peppers, la jiao (spicy) and hua jiao (fragrant), create the essence of authentic Sichuan flavor. You’ll quickly learn about hua jiao when you accidentally bite into one of the tiny ball-shaped peppercorns, emitting a sharp and overwhelming burst of fragrant flavor. You’re not supposed to eat those, or the spicy peppers which flavor the dishes that they’re seasoning – it requires a bit of chopstick proficiency and practice but you’ll adjust quickly. This is really a kind of food that cannot properly be eaten without chopsticks because you’re extracting many of the dishes from surrounding flavor agents which are too potent to be eaten directly. The spiciness and the resultant perspiration keeps locals cool during the hot summers and warm in the cold, damp Sichuan winter.

Perhaps the spiciest of all food in Sichuan, however, is hot pot. Originating from nearby Chongqing, hot pot is a simmering cauldron of soup stock in which meat, vegetables, and fish are cooked and then fished out with chopsticks. Before you make it into the door of a hot pot restaurant the potency of the spices in the air will be noticeable and sometimes elicit sneezing, but don’t worry, there are several measures to manage the spiciness. Although hot pot is traditionally spicy, there is a mild version which you’ll immediately notice isn’t bright red in color – good for beginners. If potato and tofu aren’t adventurous enough for you, try the lotus flower or pig brain which locals say promotes cognitive vitality.

With dozens of outstanding restaurants in Chengdu it’s hard to select the best, but these are some of the restaurants that we’ve come to trust over the years:

The Old Pier (Lao Ma Tou 老码头) Hot Pot

location: Yu Lin Zhong Lu #27

telephone: 028-85555705

The Lao Ma Tou sign is incredible in both its size and intracacy

After being remodelled in the summer of 2009, this is a dazzling site to behold in the Yulin neighborhood. Featuring an enormous facade with thousands of watts of light illuminating the intricate traditional Chinese woodwork out front, Lao Ma Tou has been a well known and popular hot pot restaurant since 2001. Inside it’s hot, lively, and filled with the warm and rowdy atmopshere that hot pot restaurants are famous for. Order some beers to keep you cool because the hot pot served here is spicy enough to be detected in the air quite a distance away from the front door. In Chinese, Lao Ma Tou means “Old Pier” and accordingly, the logo of the restaurant is a ships helm set upon a wavering sea. On weekends you’ll find people sitting outside playing cards and snacking on peanuts while they wait for room to clear up. The the restaurant  appears deceptively larger than it actually is due to the monstrous facade which takes up an entire city block. It’s by far the most lit up restaurant in the area and with its traditional Chinese style it’s a beautiful sight in the evening. Expect to pay between 100-300 yuan for a group of four.

The Succulent Duck (Wen Ya Zi 温鸭子)

location: Yu Lin Zhong Lu #41

website: wenyazi.com

"Wen Yazi" in Yulin prepares in the afternoon for dinner patrons

This two-floor Sichuan restaurant has become one of the most popular restaurants in the Yu Lin area and specializes in duck, which is ordinarily not a main fixture of local cuisine. In the evening it’s often a boisterous crowd of several dozen patrons as glasses clink and dishes are shared around big circular tables. The over-sized menus at Wen Ya Zi allow you to see big clear pictures of all the dishes available before you commit which is great when you’re browsing for new dishes to try. Prices for dishes are above average for Chengdu but this restaurant is clean and presentable and serves exceptional food which is why it’s always busy. Wen Ya Zi is located almost directly across the street from Lao Ma Tou hot pot.