Spicing it up in Chengdu

Panda loveChengdu is the capital city of Sichuan (aka Szechuan), famed for its spicy and very delicious food. The province is also known as the home of the giant panda and for the big earthquake they had in 2008, some 80km north west of Chengdu. The city is also home to the Chinese sister club of Sheffield United (my team), who go by the name of Chengdu Blades. Sadly, due to time and weather constraints I didn’t get time to check out the pandas or the football, so I contented myself with the food instead.

Urban neonThe neon lights of the city’s tall buildings are not quite as awe inspiring as its hilly neighbour Chongqing, but it’s still fun to buzz around the broad streets in a taxi taking in the urban landscape.

Light showCabs are very cheap here, starting at 8 RMB, so you can get to all the restaurants below for little more than two or three pounds.

Huang Cheng Lao Ma (High Intermediate A), Er Huan Lu Nan Duan 3,20, Tel. 028 8513 9999

Conveyor hot potThis is a multi-storey restaurant and teahouse in a very modern and impressive building. I went on the recommendation that it was one of the best places to try hot pot (aka steam boat), another very famous Sichuan method of cooking. Unlike the north, where hotpot probably originated over a thousand years ago, the Sichuanese add Hua Jiao (Sichuan peppers) and chillies to make a red soup base.

HotpotThis style is called ‘numb and spicy’ to reflect these flavours, but you can opt for two soup bases and have a mild white stock as well. I prefer the hot one though.

Bok choiYou can have hot pot in many restaurants which I’m sure are very good but the great thing about how they do it here is that all the ingredients pass in front of you in small dishes on a conveyor belt so you can choose exactly what you want, and how much,  from a very wide range of options.

The spreadIn my case I chose bowls of mushrooms (straw, oyster and boletus), meat (pork, two kinds of beef, liver, tripe) and vegetables (pak choi, water spinach, bean sprouts) as well as tofu and transparent noodles. There are lots of fishy dishes on offer too as well as many other things you would need a Chinese friend to help you identify. Once cooked, ladled out and drained the food is then dipped in a bowl of garlic flavoured sesame oil and scoffed, a very enjoyable process.

There are other snacks, desserts and lots of fruit on separate buffet tables too. You pay a set fee of 140 RMB (drinks extra) and eat as much as you like, which is like a red rag to a bull to me! On both occasions I went I’d missed lunch and ate way more than a normal person, so they couldn’t wait to get rid of me by the end of the night! I really enjoyed this place and would definitely recommend it.

Ma La Tu Ji Spicy ChickenGinko Restaurant (Yinxing Chuancai Jiulou) (High Intermediate A), 12 Lin Jiang Zhong Lu, Chengdu, Tel. 028 8555 5588

Nice traditional style place with a second floor view of the river. I had shredded Spicy Chicken (Ma La Tu Ji) with peanuts, celery and some other unidentifiable things swimming in a pool of chilli oil and sesame seeds, as is the Sichuan way (B+).

Mapo TofuAlso the classic Mapo Tofu (A) in a sauce of ground Sichuan peppercorns, black beans and minced beef, doused in chilli oil again. In addition, Water Spinach stir fried with fresh red chilli (A) and a large Tsingtao which came in an unusual bottle and tasted stronger than usual.

Lovely smiley staff some of whom spoke some English. The Eyewitness guide says the Sichaun roast duck (Zhang Cha Ya) and steamed fish (Qing Zhen Gui yu) are also good here. They accept international credit cards.

PicklesSichuan Mangtingfang Langting Guibin Huiso (Advanced B+), Erhan Lu 15, Nan San Duan, Tel. 028 8519 3111

This is a famous old-school restaurant with an impressive facade but a relaxed atmospheric interior. When I arrived I was given some complimentary strange white pickles (anyone know what they are?) (B) and a plate of fruit which I saved for dessert.

Roast duckThe menu has some quite scary items but I bottled it as usual and went for the safer options. For a change on the duck theme I had crispy goose which came with a sweet sauce, plum I think (B+). The house fried rice is great (A) with lots of tasty morsels mixed in.

Stewed mushromsAlso a huge plate of mushrooms and pak choi In a white soupy sauce (B).

Dandan noodlesThe blandness of the pak choi and mushroom dish contrasted nicely with the mild heat of a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles (B+), another classic local dish. Points lost for the lack of cold beer.

Water Hotel (Intermediate C), 53-57 Taisheng South Road, Chengdu, Tel. 028 8298 8888

This is a big so called four star hotel trying to be posh but is actually quite basic with dingy rooms and aircon that you don’t have any control over. There are free Wi-Fi and internet cable connections in the rooms. The staff are friendly but have weak English skills which made booking restaurants a bit of a chore. The gym is pitiful with tiny unusable machines. Breakfast is good if you’re Chinese, sparse if you’re not. There are lots of noodle bars down the side street opposite and to the left of the front entrance.

Other than the hotel, I really enjoyed Chengdu and ate very well while I was here. The city also featured in the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, (here’s the You Tube link) which was aired in the UK while I was here. Although I seemed to have had a lot of the same dishes I wish I’d seen it before I came for restaurant tips. Yu’s Family Kitchen looks to be the place to eat according to the programme. Can’t wait to try it next time…

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