Chengdu is a noodle glutton’s paradise. Noodle shops dot the landscape, appearing in clusters throughout the city, filled with steam and the sting of chili peppers and contented fellow eaters hunkered over piping hot bowls. The noodles are outrageously fresh, dressed in heaping spoonfuls of garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, sugar, ginger, fermented black beans, then splashed with black vinegar, chili oil, and sesame paste. The ingredients are endless, the combinations both eye- and mouth-watering.
At noodle shops, you order in liangs, a serving size that’s about the amount of pasta you could fit in your fist. In a typical meal, I would order two liangs but split them between different noodle dishes. For non-Mandarin speakers, there are often some pictures, or my best bet was to scan the room and point at the most delicious-looking bowl. Orders typically appear in just a few minutes, and depending on the shop, you can watch them being made through glass picture windows.
Many of these noodle dishes appear at snack shops, stands, noodle shops and on the menu at a variety of restaurants. Here are the five bowls to get you started on your Chengdu noodle adventure. Grab a friend and one lian of each and you could knock out this menu in a single sitting.
1. Liang Miàn: Cold Noodles
Refreshing liang miàn features the dizzying classic Sichuan flavor combination of sugar, chili
peppers, and black vinegar. Sichuan peppercorns cozy up to crackling bits of white sugar,
calcifying into salty sweet toffee in the dark vinegar spiked sauce. The noodles are slim, a fat
tangle of thin strands. Toppings like bean sprouts, minced chili peppers in oil, chopped green
onions and fresh coriander add layers of texture, crunchy and crisp bits that thread between the noodles and disappear into the depths of the bowl to soak up the rich sauce. There’s a lightness to this dish, a sweet sharp black vinegar taste that seems even more triumphant because it’s cold. I chased these noodles through Chengdu. For a month, there was not a single day that I didn’t devour at least one bowl to stave off the thick, foggy heat.
2. Tian Shui Mian: Sweet Water Noodles
It’s a toss up between what’s more addictive: The wildly chewy noodles, so dense and jaw-working that they briefly stick to your teeth like taffy, or the pepper-spiked sweet sesame sauce that clings to the perfect ridges of each thick strand. The sauce includes rich sesame paste thinned with soy sauce and chili oil, then spiked with Sichuan peppercorns and sugar. It’s a wheat noodle and you can tell: the chewiness is intense, a kind of mega fresh al dente that sops up the sauce. Each square-cut strand is long and thick: Though your bowl will be full, it can seem like there is just one continuous noodle in each serving. Order these cold or hot depending on your noodley desires.
3. Dandanmian: Dan Dan Noodles
Dandanmian swim in a dark red sauce bursting with tingling Sichuan chili pepper flavor, five
spice, and the tang and funk of ya cai, Sichuanese preserved vegetables. The overall sensation is pure porky spice, a bright red heat that twists through the web of skinny noodles and minced pork. Often at noodle shops, your noodles will appear to be undressed. Dandanmian may look at first sight to be a blank slate of untouched strands, perhaps topped with a smidge of crumbled ground pork. Toss them with chopsticks and you’ll find the sauce coalescing at the bottom of the bowl, the flavors combining and churning under the heat and weight of the noodles.
4. Liang fen: Cold Mung Bean Noodles
Mix up the texture and sensation of your second bowl by diving into liang fen. These square-cut noodles are actually long, carefully formed blocks of slippery mung bean jelly. The noodles are almost flavorless and have the softness of a starchy jello; each bite offers a satisfying smush as the jelly bursts from its shape. Because they’re so perfectly square, they’re often meticulously stacked, then dressed with a rich chili pepper sauce, fermented black beans, and the sharp piquant flavor of black vinegar. The mung bean jelly soaks up the sauce, slowly turning the color of the brilliant florid red chili oil as it lingers on the plate.
5. Suan La Fen: Hot and Sour Sweet Potato Noodles
Coils of glossy, translucent pale purple sweet potato noodles float in a shimmering broth,
emitting peppery, sour steam. This dish offers the explosive and elusive sour heat, a spiciness paired with a vinegary pucker. Long glowing noodles float in plenty of salty, sour, spicy sauce. Pickled vegetables, roasted peanuts, and fresh coriander bob on top, minced garlic pricking through the heat, and málà, the tingly numbing mouth feel of Sichuan peppercorns, is the order of the day.