Spectacular Meals: Chengdu (成都 chéngdū)

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chengdu is a wonderful city for eating. It is one of the great culinary centers of China and the heart of Sichuan cuisine (川菜 chuāncài). Sichuan cuisine is mostly known in the West as the spicy food of China. It is true that there is some truly spicy food here, but it’s not all about chili peppers. There are quite a few dishes that have no heat at all. But the most famous dishes tend to be pretty spicy.

In April my friend and colleague and I spent a week in Chengdu doing research on Sichuan cuisine. The research was rigorous and demanding requiring us to eat as many Sichuan dishes as we could in the short time that we had. Our first evening in Chengdu we went to the restaurant 陳麻婆豆腐 chén mápó dòufu (Chen’s Mapo Tofu). This restaurant has been around since 1862 and claims to be the originator of the famous Sichuan dish, Mapo Doufu, a spicy tofu dish. We had read about this restaurant and wanted to give it a try. We are both quite fond of Mapo Doufu and I have eaten it all over China, but never at its source.

Inside the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant.

We had a very memorable meal. All five dishes that we ordered that night were excellent and I still think of that spectacular meal.

An exquisite dinner.

An exquisite dinner.

Below I describe each of the five dishes that we ordered.

1. Mapo Doufu 麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu

Mapo Doufu

Mapo Doufu

What made this Mapo Doufu different from all others I have had was the Sichuan pepper or 花椒 huājiāo. This is sometimes translated as prickly ash. It isn’t a true pepper. It is a seed that grows on a bush. The husk is dried, ground, and added to dishes. It produces a numbing heat that the Chinese call 麻辣 málà literally meaning “numb-spicy.” It really does numb your lips, tongue, and mouth. It is a very pleasant sensation, though many Westerners don’t like it. This particular dish had a great deal of Sichuan pepper mixed into the dish, as well as quite a bit of freshly ground Sichuan pepper sprinkled on top. It was very numbing. The dish also had just a bit of ground beef to give it a fuller flavor and it was swimming in hot red chili oil. It was quite salty and as I mentioned very spicy, both in the traditional sense and the numbing sense.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

2. Smoked Ribs 烟熏骨 yānxūn gǔ

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This was a dish that was not spicy at all. These pork ribs were smokey and meaty,  seasoned with black pepper and maybe just a hint of ginger. The meat was very tender, literally falling off the bone. And the flavor was deep and rich. We really enjoyed this dish, and it was so different than your typical Chinese dish. We could have eaten two more plates of this delicious dish. This is the kind of dish that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

3. Dry-pot Chicken 干锅鸡 gānguō jī

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

This dish was spectacular. From the first bite we were transported to some culinary place we had never imagined. These small pieces of bone-in chicken are deep fried, then cooked in a dry iron pot with the other ingredients. This dish contained whole cloves of garlic, baby bamboo shoots, scallion, lots of dried red chilis, and Sichuan pepper. This chicken had so much flavor—fiery, salty, crispy. It was truly remarkable. This was another dish that we felt like we could eat very night. We had never had fried chicken like this before.

A truly exceptional dish.

A truly exceptional dish.

4. Bean-garlic Fish 豆辫鱼 dòubiàn yǔ

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

I’m not really sure how to translate this dish, but who cares, it was delicious. The Chinese typically serve fish whole, that is with the head and tail intact. And why not, the tastiest, most tender part of the meat on a fish is right behind the gills. This fish was steamed then smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce with chili pepper and scallions. It was not that spicy and there was that nice sweet contrast to the chilis. The fish was very tender and the mellow flavor of the fish was nicely enhanced with the rich flavorful sauce. I like fish and I really liked this dish. It was exceptional.

An exceptional steamed fish.

An exceptional steamed fish.

5. Shredded chicken with cold noodles 鸡丝凉粉 jīsī liángfěn

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There are quite a few cold dishes served in Sichuan cuisine and this was a good one. 凉粉 liángfěn are a bean noodle typically served cold. They are thick and chewy with a light delicate flavor. This dish was seasoned with chili oil, sesame seeds, scallions, and a little minced garlic. On top was shredded chicken just lightly salted. The coolness of the dish was a nice contrast to the other hot dishes. Noodles are pretty important in Sichuan cuisine and there are noodle shops all over Chengdu. Noodles are a traditional fast food in China and in Sichuan they take their noodles pretty seriously.

As we finished this meal (and no we could not finish it all) we were reeling, intoxicated with the rich flavors of these dishes. Our mouths glowed from the heat of chili peppers and Sichuan pepper. Outside it was a cool evening, drizzling softly and this was just the beginning of a memorable few weeks eating in Western China.

Satisfied.

Satisfied.

 

14 thoughts on “Spectacular Meals: Chengdu (成都 chéngdū)

  1. Mapo doufu is one of my favorites! The first few times I came into contact with Sichuan peppers, I felt kind of like the way you described, the feeling was kind of alienating. But, I realized shortly after that the feeling was actually more appealing that I thought and after a second try I realized that this style was one of my favorites.

  2. I’ve always wanted to visit for Chengdu for the Sichuan cuisine. The smokey ribs and the dry-pot chicken look amazing. You can learn a lot about people from the food they eat and much like Chinese culture and language there is just so much variety it is truly stunning.

  3. The dry pot chicken is phenomenal. There is a restaurant in Tucson that has a very similar dish, but probably not on par with what you had. I have yet to try the tofu dish, but anything with mala peppers immediately intrigues me.

  4. Sometimes I like to think I like spicy food, but I don’t think I could handle the “numbing heat that the Chinese call 麻辣 málà literally meaning “numb-spicy.””. I think Smoked Ribs 烟熏骨 yānxūn gǔ or Dry-pot Chicken 干锅鸡 gānguō jī sound really good though!

  5. I love the pictures of the colorful food, they look and, from your descriptions, sound amazing! The Mapo Doufu sounds like its a must have for Sichuan cuisine and sounds like its flavor is worth the numbing-heat.

  6. I thought that all of the aspects of this post were really impressive. The design of the interior of the restaurants was equally impressive. It seems like most of these dishes are pretty labor intensive and the presentation of the food reflects a lot of care.

  7. I have had to opportunity to try Sicihuan food once and I thought it was incredible! I love food and I especially love spicy food. I wish I got the opportunity to do research on food in such great places around China. The restaurant you went to looks really nice and the food looked even better! I usually am not a fan of cold dishes but liángfěn looks delicious and I will have to try it the next opportunity I have to eat that kind of food!

  8. I visited Chengdu a number of years and remember the meals were amazing. This article is interesting because it gives me some knowledge as to how the dishes are different than in other provinces. With this knowledge, I hope to go back someday and have a better appreciation for the food and how it came about and the methods used to make such amazing dishes. On top of that, there are many dishes that I just read about and have not tried making another trip way more justifiable as food is one of the best parts of traveling.

  9. Chengdu is not only just a great city but it’s also a culinary hub and a heartland of chinese cuisine. There are many mainstay dishes that are part of the culture, dishes such as Mapo Tofu, smoked ribs, dry pot chicken and etc. These are all delicious dishes that everybody must try when they go to china. There are many different types of dishes, that are all so good and it makes the culinary experience even greater.

  10. Sichuan food looks amazing. I thought it was amazing that there is a restaurant in China, Chen’s Mapo Tofu, that has been around since the 1860s. The dòubiàn yǔ fish dish looks very interesting. I had o idea that cheese people typically serve fish whole. Dry-pot Chicken also looked really tasty, and it is cool that it has whole cloves of garlic in it.

  11. I have had Mapo Tofu in a few restaurants before, and it is one of my favorite Chinese dishes. I am never disappointed by the flavor. It is interesting to find out that there is a location in China that is the birthplace of this dish, especially from so long ago. I was also under the impression that most, if not all, Sichuan dishes were spicy and hot. It is nice to know that there are some cool dishes as well, and I am eager to try them, too.

  12. I can’t believe the source of mapo doufu is still around! It is amazing how old the restaurant is, and how it is the same place that created such a well-known and widely-spread dish. The restaurant itself is also very beautiful. The five dishes you ordered are my idea of a dream meal. I really enjoy Sichuan dishes, and the numbing spice is something I really love. I am a big fan of pork ribs and fish, too, so those look really tasty to me as well!

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