Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, that region of China famous for its spicy food. Chillies are a vital ingredient in almost every dish but what’s not well known is that chili peppers originated in South America – not Asia – and have only been part of Sichuan cooking for around 300 years.

Hot chili peppers with fried rabbit

Sichuan Pepper

There’s another ingredient much less familiar to the western palette, yet fundamental to Sichuan cuisine: Sichuan pepper corns.

If you’re ever enjoying a bowl of spicy noodles (面) and you suddenly say to yourself “something is wrong with my mouth”, it’s the Sichuan pepper. These little devils don’t burn like chillies – they’re not “hot”. Instead, they give your mouth a strong tingling sensation – pins and needles – just like when your foot has fallen asleep and painfully comes back to life. It’s a fascinating and rather disconcerting sensation.

Sichuan Pepper

To make things even more interesting, Sichuan pepper isn’t a pepper at all. It’s actually a citrus fruit! The US Department of Agriculture placed a ban on the import of Sichuan pepper due to a concern over bacteria that can attack orange trees and, in response, all Sichuan pepper exported from China is heat treated to 140F. That dramatically changes its character, taking away much of its distinctive flavour. So, stock up on Sichuan please next time you visit Chengdu.

Everyone Loves Noodles

Noodles are exceptionally popular in Chengdu. They are served in soups as well as “dry” (without broth). Along with Sichuan pepper (of course), you’ll often find noodle dishes featuring chili oil, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, garlic, green onions, cilantro, and cabbage leaves. Most restaurants have a tray of these so you can add as much as you like.

A soup version of zajiang noodles (杂酱面), a simple but tasty dish featuring fried minced pork. No chillies but it will still make your mouth zing!

Noodles are like a blank canvas in Sichuan cuisine. It’s the sauce that makes them come to life. While full-bodied spicy noodles are the “bread & butter”, you can indulge your sweet tooth with a tasty and refreshing noodle dessert too.

Sweet water noodles (甜水面)

Meat & Bones

Meat can be as simple as minced pork and beef ribs or as challenging as chicken gizzards, rabbit head, or various intestines. Rabbit head might sound strange. Much like bony fish, the work required to eat it isn’t a negative. Rather, that’s the reason it’s so prized. In Chengdu, food isn’t seen just as fuel or even hedonistic pleasure but as an activity to pass the time with friends and family. The longer it takes to eat, the more work, the better (and the longer your mahjong game can go on too).

Spicy rabbit head – not much meat and a lot of work, but that’s the point
Any part of the rabbit you might want, you can find here

And Maybe Some Tofu Too

Tofu is also a common ingredient but it’s not seen as a meat replacement. Variety of texture is very important in Chinese cuisine – much more so than most Western countries – and tofu adds greatly to the spectrum of texture in Sichuan dishes.

Mapo Tofu with Pig Brain. In China don’t assume that a tofu dish is vegetarian or you might be in for a shock.
Don’t worry, vegetarians, there are plenty of meat-free options too

Snacks

Noodles are typically the main dish of choice but if you’re still feeling peckish, there’s a huge variety of snacks too.

Guokui (锅盔) is one of the most popular. This simple baked bread pocket filled with sliced beef, julienned veggies and a sauce of chili oil, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and sichuan pepper is fast and delicious.

Making guokui at Grandma Yan’s
Famous Grandma Yan
Another variety of GuoKui, this one fried and spiced with cinnamon
Wang Family GuoKui – here they’re fried

While noodles are usually made from wheat, rice is also ubiquitous. Glutenous rice is formed into a wide variety of both savoury and sweet dishes.

Huang Liang Fen (煮凉粉), made of sticky rice starch and covered in fermented bean paste and chili oil

My favourite snack, though, is the simple sweet potato.

Freshly baked sweet potatoes – the perfect snack when you’re just a bit hungry but not ready for a full meal

Fast and Fresh

Sichuan food is invariably fresh. It’s cooked fast and served quickly.

Fresh vegetables are a priority and most Chengdu citizens shop for their produce daily
Handmade spring rolls with crisp fresh ingredients
If you’re really in a rush, you can just grab everything to go
Fresh… or preserved. Here we have every kind of lacto-fermented pickle you can imagine

Tea Culture

Tea is a big part of Chinese culture, especially so in Chengdu. It reminds us to slow down and enjoy life and it brings people together. Kind of like travel 🙂

A warm welcome to try a purifying cup of tea
The classic – green tea on a Sunday afternoon
Tea and traditional architecture inspire budding artists
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