Sichuan's hot ticket – a gourmet guide to Chengdu - China

Where to stay

Casa Chengdu Hotel A bolthole in the west of Chengdu (a 20-minute taxi ride to People’s Park outside of rush hour) with five comfortable rooms, a spa – with rooftop sauna – and a restaurant popular for its weekend Mediterranean brunch. Ideal for those looking for a slow introduction to the big city or as a stepping stone for an excursion into Sichuan province. Doubles from £37. N-48 Jinji West 3rd Road, 00 86 158 8243 1887,

Diaoyutai Boutique Hotel Chengdu Supremely located on Kuan Alley, with teahouses, restaurants and street food on the doorstep, these centuries-old courtyard houses have been remodelled for 21st-century comfort with well-designed rooms and some decent F&B that won’t, unfortunately, get a look-in! Doubles from £180. 38–39 Kuan Alley, 00 86 28 6633 0522, dytchengdu.comn

The St Regis Chengdu With 29 floors of swish rooms (some with butler service), a stay here will ensure easy access to all corners of central Chengdu. Despite its size, however, service is refreshingly personal, and the public spaces (from lobby to rooftop bar) are uncluttered but welcoming. Doubles from £160. 88 Taisheng Road South, 00 86 28 6287 6666,

The Temple House A fusion of one-time temple buildings with contemporary accommodation tower, this is an elegant, understated choice with fine food and drink and rooms kitted with so many gadgets a two-night stay minimum is needed to try it all out. Doubles from £230. 81 Bitieshi Street, 00 86 28 6636 9999,

Travel Information

Situated in the Sichuan Basin of southwestern China, Chengdu is framed by the Qionglai and Longmen Mountains. The official language is Mandarin, but the local dialect, Sichuan hua, is also widely spoken. Currency is the renminbi and time is eight hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK take upwards of 10 hours.

Air China flies from London Heathrow to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport with a stop in Shanghai.
Thai Airways offers flights from London Heathrow to Shuangliu with one stop in Bangkok.

Go Chengdu is the regional tourist website, full of helpful information to help you plan your trip.
China National Tourist Office is also worth checking out.

Where to eat

Prices are for a typical meal for two people with tea or soft drinks, unless otherwise stated

Bashu Dazhaimen Hot Pot A memorable example of Chengdu-style hotpot: fresh, fragrant, liquid fire, in this extremely busy restaurant (expect to queue). The English menu helps diners negotiate the dizzying array of ingredients, from bamboo shoot to bullfrog, although crispy fried pork is excellent. Hot pot for two with tea or soft drinks from £21. 91 Beidajie (500m east of Wenshuyuan Monastery)

The Bridge Chef André Chiang arrived in Chengdu in 2018 with Michelin stars and an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant under his belt, and quickly established this stylish dining room on historic Anshun Bridge over the Jinjiang river; the menu might best be navigated via the ‘Four Chapters’ set on a first visit, otherwise there are small eats, cold and hot dishes (18 of each) to choose from. Tasting menu for two with wine from £130. 66 Binjiang East Road, 00 86 28 8444 3888,

Chen Mapo Doufu One dish defines this boisterous restaurant: mapo doufu, made following the same recipe (and using ingredients from the same suppliers) for 150 years. The service is haphazard, perhaps, and some other dishes ordinary, but the signature is world class. From £5. 29 Wenshuyuan Street

Dongzikou Zhanglao’er Liangfen Most come for a saucer of tian shui mian, sweet-water noodles, sliced from a mung-bean jelly; other options include huang liangfen, ‘yellow noodles’ cut into long, thick triangles, and dandan mian with beef. Eat in or take it to go on the street. From £3. 39 Wenshuyuan Street

Gongting Pastry Shop and Wenshuyuan Bakery Nearby bakeries easily spotted by the queues: Gongting has a picture menu of its several dozen varieties of cakes and cookies (each has a reference number, or simply ask for the jiaoyan salt-and-huajiao cookies). Wenshuyuan’s ‘tea sweets’ include xuehuasu, ‘snow flower’ (a crumbly pastry with pork floss and spring onion), or xianhuabing (‘fresh flower cake’), a rose-fragrance pastry. From 50p for a cake or cookie at either place. Gongting Pastry Shop, 9 Jiangyanggongsuo Street; Wenshuyuan Bakery, 17 Toufu Street

Mi Xun Teahouse In a charming courtyard setting, Mi Xun boasts 44 Chinese teas – alongside Sichuan classics Hangzhou Dragon Well and 10-year-old ‘ripe’ Pu’er, plus ‘tea sweets’ including pineapple cake – and a menu of plant-based and vegan adaptations of regional classics (think kung pao button mushrooms, spinach noodles in dandan sauce). From £35. The Temple House, 81 Biteshi Street, 00 86 28 6297 4193,

Yan Ting Precision and clarity are the hallmarks of Chef Mike Li’s cooking at The St Regis’ Yan Ting; the menu reaches from cuisine mainstays such as dandan mian and the inocuous-sounding but searing shuizhuyu ‘water-poached fish’ to contemporary fusion green huajiao-poached foie gras and mala-baked black cod. À la carte for two including wine from £70. The St Regis Chengdu, 88 Taisheng Road South, 00 86 28 6287 6666,

Yongju Teahouse This lakeside teahouse in the People’s Park presents a selection of teas including Sichuan mainstays such as meng ding honey dew and emei jasmine. Do the local thing and bring cookies from Gongting Pastry Shop (see above), perhaps, or some guaiwei dry-roasted peanuts to munch while sipping. Pay first and the tea will be brought out. Tea for two, from £3. People’s (Renmin) Park, 12 Shaocheng Road

Food Glossary

Fermented chilli broad-bean paste, essential in the spicy tofu dish mapo doufu and yuxiang seasoning (see below)
Fermented black soybean, another key ingredient in mapo doufu and countless other dishes
Robust, fruity chilli pepper most favoured in Sichuan, used fresh, dried, in oil or pickled in brine with a splash of rice wine
Ganbian sijidou
French or string beans dry-fried till they’re scorched
‘Dry-braising’ method of cooking fish or meat resulting in an rich, unctuous coating
Gongbao (kung pao) jiding
A widely cooked chicken dish that is stir-fried with nuts
Blend of spices with mala (see below), sour, sesame, pungent and sweet elements equally balanced
‘Flower pepper’ with a very strong, fiery after-effect
Chinese hot pot – the Chengdu version is fragrant and suits offal, fish and vegetables
‘Hot-and-numbing’ flavour
Pickled chilli pepper
Meat or fish flash-boiled in a rolling stock, before having scalding oil loaded with chilli and huajiao spooned over
Xiao chi
Snacks and street food
Sweet and sour seasoning based on pickled chilli and doubanjiang (see above) to give a ‘fish fragrance’
Common technique of smoking over tea leaves, used with duck, fatty fish and tofu

Food and Travel Review

Ordinarily, the good citizens of the Sichuan capital are cool-headed and relaxed – they have no time for the hustle of their Shanghai counterparts, no appetite for the bean-counting of the folk up in Beijing. Chengdu’s drizzly days and steamy nights mean they see absolutely no reason to get a sweat on unnecessarily. Unless they’re chowing down, that is, in which case they might get a little hot under the collar.

Sichuan – in southwest China, its fifth largest province – is the size of mainland Spain. And, like Spain, the rain falls mainly on the plain. Specifically, the alluvial plains, which form the fertile basin of its eastern half. This is one of the country’s least sunny, most humid regions and it’s an agricultural powerhouse, managing to produce GDP-balancing quantities of rice, maize, sugarcane, peanuts and tangerines. The drier west (on the other side of centrally located Chengdu) is mostly made up of Tibetan Plateau foothills reaching heights of up to 7.5km. This monumental wall of mountain kettles moist air over the capital’s 18 million citizens who flip-flop their way through sticky summers and damp winters.

It is these wet, sun-starved conditions that helped shape Sichuan cuisine, one of the ‘Four Great Schools’ of regional Chinese culinary tradition. According to Chinese medicine, such a climate knocks the body’s yin-yang out of kilter. An imbalance that is remedied by a pungent diet – the kind of food the people here crave all year round: oily and spicy, made from an apothecary cabinet of chilli bean paste and fermented black beans, spring onion, ginger and garlic, zhenjiang black vinegar, and principally chilli pepper (dried, pickled or in oil) and Sichuan peppercorn.

Although pushed to the side of the plate and rarely eaten, the chilli pepper is used generously in many Sichuan dishes – so generously that you might wonder if locals enjoy hunting for their food.

As the well-worn old joke could go, ‘How did you find your meal?’ ‘Well, I bulldozed a mountain of chilli and there it was…’

In Chengdu restaurants – whether swanky or ‘fly’ (as greasy spoons are known) – you can ask for your food anywhere from ‘buyaola’ (non-spicy) to ‘laola’ – old hot (meaning hot-as-hell). But however you take your la, or chilli heat, when it’s paired with some ma ‘numbness’ then the flavour profile (like the province’s terrain) moves from undulating upland to precipitous peaks.

The Sichuan peppercorn provides that unexpected dimension to a cuisine that is already complex. The Chinese call this prickly-ash berry huajiao (or ‘flower pepper’), probably because it resembles a peppercorn that eventually opens with little ‘petals’. But it could also be from the aroma: a potpourri of citrus, rose, bay leaf, pepper. And, once tasted, those are the initial flavours, too. But give it moment and something peculiar happens. From the lips to the tip of the tongue, and then throughout the mouth, there’s a tingle, pins-and-needles, something not unlike the buzz a 9-volt battery gives when its terminals are licked.

This sensation is caused by a compound called sanshool tickling the nerves that normally only respond to light touch. When combined with some stimulation of the mouth’s heat receptors (which chilli’s equivalent compound, capsaicin, likes to do) it makes the idiosyncratic mala (‘hot and numbing’) style.

An exemplary mala dish, mapo doufu – literally, ‘pock-marked old woman’s tofu’ – is reputed to have been the creation of a certain Madame Chen Liu, who took over the running of her husband’s restaurant (near Chengdu’s Wanfu Bridge) in the 1860s, and quickly found a following.

Today’s Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Wenshufang district claims direct lineage from that stuff-of-legend eatery and it lies just a stone’s throw from the original site. Brusque, unfussy service belies the intense focus of its supremely busy kitchen, where a quick peek reveals a gang of chefs going hammer and tongs over jet-powered gas burners, and cauldron-sized woks containing stews bubbling like magma. The fire blankets on the wall are presumably there just in case the sauces combust.

Its mapo doufu is a startlingly sophisticated dish: fragile tofu (supplied by the same maker, dating back to 1865) in a brawny, oily sauce that is almost sweet, ‘gritty’ with huajiao, and swimming in umami. Unusually, they use minced beef rather than pork – dry-fried separately until it’s grainy, thereby adding more texture. The mala hum kicks in after two mouthfuls, with chilli and Sichuan peppercorn surging in see-saw waves.

Chen Mapo Doufu sits in the middle of a touristic but nonetheless appealing tangle of reinvigorated 19th-century Qing-era lanes. Just along central Wenshuyuan Street a ‘fly’ restaurant has a mouthful of a name – Dongzikou Zhanglao’er Liangfen – but it’s an archetypical xiao chi, or ‘small eats’, kitchen with a room of rickety tables and low stools on one side and a hatch to the street on the other.

Through the kitchen’s glass walls, the peckish (ie, anyone passing, but especially those who’ve just bought a ticket inside) watch saucers of al dente mung-bean jelly noodles haphazardly sploshed with spoonfuls of chilli oil and huajiao, ground sesame and meat jelly, and topped with a nibble of granulated sugar.

With the same on-the-go satisfaction as espresso drinkers at an Italian cafe’s bar, Chengdu folk are handed their saucer through the hatch and stand on the street for a moment – or perhaps sit on their scooters (not quite Vespas) – to slurp up the three or four restorative mouthfuls of tian shui mian, or ‘sweet-water noodles’.

Opposite, Wenshuyuan Monastery is the ancient pillar of this neighbourhood. Dating back more than a millennium it has seen the Song and Ming dynasties, republics and revolutions, and the introduction of the chilli pepper in the 16th century by Portuguese ships arriving at Macau. Its restaurant offers Buddhist vegetarian cooking which is less reliant on mala, including dishes such as tea-smoked or pickled tofu, dry-pot lotus root, braised cabbage with ya cai (fermented mustard greens) and occasionally cold dishes dressed with a classic guaiwei or ‘strange sauce’, which turns out to be a balanced melding of mala, sour (often black vinegar, sometimes citrus), sesame paste and raw sesame, and pungent garlic and spring onion.

A couple of nearby old-school bakeries use Sichuan peppercorn in equally strange if restrained ways.

Wenshuyuan Bakery’s longan cake has a fudgy filling underlined by a slow Sichuan pepper fizzle. And around the corner at Gongting Pastry Shop, the salt-and-huajiao-speckled cookies are a fine accompaniment to bitan piaoxue tea, the uncommon ‘snowflake’ jasmine green tea grown near Mount Emei some 140km south of Chengdu.

Wenshufang district sits in the northern quarter of downtown Chengdu – a 12sq km slab bounded by the Jin river and its tributaries. In the west, the buzzy neighbourhood around the Kuan and Zhai (‘Wide’ and ‘Narrow’) Alleys finds crowded courtyard teahouses and street food stalls serving traditional and new-wave flavours – think stinky tofu on sticks or huajiao ice cream. While on the east side, the Daci Temple district appeals to those looking for time and space to explore its branded restaurants and upscale boutiques. And, at the heart of it all, on vast Tianfu Square, a statue of Chairman Mao waves to allcomers – the leader himself was famously fond of the chilli pepper, and once claimed it as the food of a true revolutionary.

It was in 1934, while Mao and the Red Army were in the midst of the Long March episode of China’s Civil War, that Fernand Petiot devised the Bloody Mary at New York’s St Regis hotel. It’s a cocktail that finds signature variations around the world these days. At their Chengdu property, a short march from Mao’s statue, the bar’s Chuan Mary is made by shaking up the original recipe with a heap of huajiao, soy sauce and splashes of green tabasco for extra verve.

Innovation continues in the St Regis kitchen, where chef Mike Li explores ingredients that can withstand the onslaught of classic recipes and seasonings: suckling pig, salmon, foie gras. He begins his day, however, with a simple street version of dandan mian – the iconic mala dish of slippery wheat noodles with nutty, oily minced pork – which he prefers not too punchy at such an early hour. He likens this to introducing infants to hot and numbing food. ‘Always start out unambitiously,’ he says. ‘As soon as they are on solids, we treat them to morsels with just a pinch of chilli and huajiao.’ Mike uses the three types of huajiao across his menu: dried red, dried green (moderately milder) and fresh green, still on the twig. Duck meat might call for a robust red peppercorn (many in Chengdu add citrusy young ginger, too), while a delicate river fish will suit the fresh huajiao more.

At Wukuaishi, the city’s principal spice market, every surface is coated in a fine vermilion dust, not least the shoulders of the traders who spend their days hauling hessian bags of ginger, star anise, cinnamon, chillies and, of course, all types and grades of huajiao. Sacks are piled high, some rolled open to reveal lipstick-red fresh pepper and crimson huajiao. A caravan of trucks and pickups, axles squeaking with huajiao-clumped oil, squeeze through the gateways all day long.

‘When I’m choosing my huajiao,’ Chengdu-native and cook Tony Yang says, ‘I look at the colour and consistency of the peppercorns first.'

'Then I like to take a few, roll them lightly between my hands, and smell my empty palms. Warmth brings out the fragrant oils.’ Tony thinks the peppercorns that come to market in the autumn are best, but Mike is a little more pragmatic. ‘As long as it hasn’t been too wet in Hanyuan County, pretty much any time of year is okay.’ Both agree that Hanyuan is where the finest huajiao comes from. ‘Plenty of sunshine,’ explains Yang, ‘and the perfect terroir.’

Hanyuan huajiao finds its way into several drinks at Jing, the bar of understated, urbane The Temple Hotel in Daci district, and none more so than the Sichuan Mule, a take on the classic vodka, lime and ginger beer mix. In this instance the vodka is infused with huajiao, naturally. ‘It takes just two days for the peppercorns to share their flavours,’ barman Desmond tells me. ‘We don’t make it too spicy. We want a drink that glows.’ And he indicates a recently prepared bottle behind the counter – a third full of peppercorns topped up with the spirit, which has already turned soft amber.

The hotel’s Mi Xun teahouse epitomises the Chengdu way. It’s an elegant, unhurried space around an away-from-it-all courtyard, stocking teas from across China. One of its finest is the meng ding gan lu from Sichuan’s Ya’an County. The name means ‘honey dew from atop Meng Mountain’, which accurately expresses its fresh sweetness, the upshot of being dried and rolled three times. The silvery green leaves are added to the pot after the water. ‘Be careful!’ the waitress warns, with words that sound a little lost in Chengdu. ‘Water no more than 85C – we don’t want to scorch it!’

Words and photography by Mark Parren Taylor.

This feature was taken from the Christmas 2021 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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