Chengdu is an official UNESCO City of Gastronomy. The air smarts with chile peppers, the mishmash of a million kitchens releasing peppery steam and smoke, pouring it over the city. Walking down the street, you’ll pass endless meccas of cuisine, tea houses, hole-in-the-wall fly restaurants, noodle shops and cavernous hot pot emporiums.
This labyrinth of dishes and restaurants, stands and shops can feel dizzying. Start your Chengdu food adventure with these six dishes, a cross-section between spicy and sweet, with wild heat and plenty of sugar for your cool down. Bonus points if you knock these all out in your first day.
1. Fuqi Feipian
A classic Sichuan dish, Fuqi Feipian combines thin slices of beef and beef tripe with five spice, buzzing Sichuan peppercorns and red chili oil. The explosive combination of seasonings marry with fresh coriander, roasted peanuts and celery to create layers of texture swimming in salty, spicy oil. The thinly sliced offal has lacy edges, and both meat and offal contain a casual chewiness. It’s a sea of textures, a crunch of peppercorns and hollow pepper husks, crisp peanuts and slick meat, spices pricking and tickling every taste corner of your hungry tongue, lighting up your entire mouth, electrifying your delighted guts. Variations of this dish use alternate meats; a popular version includes chunks of bone-in rabbit. Fuqi Feipian origins trace back to a long ago husband and wife team who made a distinctive version of spiced beef and offal named “fuqi feipian,” which at the time translated to “husband and wife offal slices.” The current translation is “husband and wife lung slices,” but Fuqi Feipian rarely includes lungs.
2. Liang Gao
Liang Gao looks a little like a hunk of the moon bobbing in a slick brown puddle. It’s a shallow bowl of thin brown sugar syrup, with a starchy gelatinous mound in the center made out of glutinous rice powder. The opaque orb wiggles with each dip of your spoon, slurping up the complex brown syrup. The gentle absence of flavor in the slippery blob highlights the lusciousness of the cold sugar syrup. It’s oddly refreshing, a joyful cool down in the sweltering summer months when the humidity is high and you need a post-spicy food sweet. This summery treat is available at snack shops and noodle shops.
3. Hong You Chao Shou
These tender local dumplings (pictured at top) are drenched in sauce; their pale thick skins are hissing and fresh, stuffed with soft pork. The skins crinkle and look like they’re loosely holding the filling, a gentle hug between wrapper and stuffing. They bob in plenty of flavorful chili oil so there’s no need (or desire) to dip them in anything else. This spicy version is a classic, and another favorite is the spicy sour version, Suanla Chao Shou. Although these are available at restaurants, they are best enjoyed at outdoor tea houses while you play and sip as ear cleaners walk through peddling their wares, offering to ding the tender bit on the inside of your ear canal.
4. Mápó dòufu
Soft, fresh tofu floats in a fiery sauce studded with Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, ground pork, green onions, and fermented black beans. Mápó dòufu is a sensory adventure; it’s lush with hot and numbing flavors, so expect your mouth to tingle and buzz with the magical combination of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. The average menu includes this dish — it’s a hallmark of fly restaurants, small mom and pop shop style restaurants dotting the city that serve jiachang cai (homestyle cooking). But if you’re looking for it’s most famed iteration, Chen Mapo Tofu is a can’t-miss experience. It’s the home of the original mápó dòufu recipe, which they claim was passed down directly from Grandma Chen herself (the translation for mapo dofu is “pockmarked grandmother’s tofu.”)
5. Hot Pot
Welcome to the land of hot pot: Walk down nearly any street in Chengdu and you’ll stumble across a hot pot destination. Inside, a cauldron of ludicrously spicy, buzzing chili oil bubbles on the table as you float raw vegetables, meats and fish and snatch them with chopsticks when they’re done, cooked and thoroughly spiced. Each bite contains the tingle and hiss of multiple levels of spice, the pleasant blitzed sensation of hot-and-numbing flavors. There’s an enormous variety of experiences and styles. Many hot pot restaurants are themed to different ingredients, particularly meats. There are small hot pot spots and cavernous hot pot locales. Not a spicy food fan? Try non-spicy mushroom hot pot, a gentle salty broth dotted with sour goji berries, fat sweet jujubes, slim strands of mushroom stems and paired with a bowl of sesame oil to cool the steaming greens, lotus roots and hunks of fungus.
Hot pot is a group activity, so bring as many people as you can and try as many ingredients as possible.
6. Taosu Walnut Cookies and Sweet Sichuan Pepper Pastries
Let’s count these cookies together because a.) They are a perfect cookie course and b.) You should get them at the same place, Gong Ting bakery, a bustling little bakery outside of Wenshu monastery.
Crumbly golden walnut cookies have a rich, buttery flavor with a warm note of walnut. They taste like a nutty shortbread and are available in sweet and slightly savory version, the savory version featuring a blast of Sichuan peppercorn flavor. The sweet Sichuan pepper spiked pastries are oblong puff pastry buns stuffed with a combination of nuts, sugar and Sichuan peppercorns. The combination of sugar and chili creates a spicy, tingling heat wrapped in sweetness that bends and delights the tongue, an addictive adventure through oscillating patches of tastebuds. You can find it replicated in a popular snack food, crunchy coated long beans, and in a legendary local noodle dish, liang mien.
You buy these treats in bulk so cart them across the street to Wenshu, or your tea house of choice, to enjoy while drinking dozens of refills of hot tea.