As a key outpost on the historic Southern Silk Road, the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu was a hub for the world’s exotic spices and ingredients. Over thousands of years, the city developed a unique cuisine – so much so that, in 2010, it became the first Asian metropolis to be named a Unesco City of Gastronomy.
Sichuanese dishes are some of the most flavourful of all China’s regional cuisines. They include classics such as tongue-numbing mapo doufu (tofu in chilli and bean sauce, 麻婆豆腐), sizzling shuizhuyu (water-boiled fish,水煮鱼) and yuxiangqiezi (fish-fragrant eggplant, 鱼香茄子). Then there are the centuries-old – but still popular – street snacks such as dandanmian (担担面) – noodles dressed in chilli oil, and topped with Sichuan peppercorn, crunchy mustard stems, ground pork and scallions.
As well as such Sichuanese fare, Chengdu offers a whole class of food that is unique to the city, available in cangyingguan
, or ‘fly restaurants’. These feature rickety stools and questionable hygiene, but they serve delicious home-style cuisine at dirt-cheap prices. Locals sniff these places out like flies (hence the name) and the best ones have constant lines outside their doors.
The first spot to hit is Ming Ting (30 Yijiefang, Waicaojia Xiang, Jinniu district, 028 8331 5978. Open 11am-9pm daily. 金牛区外曹家巷一街坊30号), which is probably the most famous ‘fly restaurant’ – and for good reason. Hidden down an alley in a historic market, it is always packed, as locals flock to it for specialities like pig’s brain tofu (脑花豆腐; like mapo doufu but with extra oomph) and heyezhengrou (lotus-leaf steamed pork belly, 荷叶蒸肉). Ming Ting will move to a bigger space in late 2012; check with the owner, Zhang Fu Ming, on (0)136 8805 1521.
If you visit the Wenshu Monastery, stop at nearby Zhangliangfen (39 Wenshuyuan Jie, Qingyang district, no tel. 青羊区文殊院街39号), which offers bowls of tianshuimian (sweet and spicy noodles,甜水面) and liang fen (凉风), the mung-bean noodles that give the restaurant its name. With just the right amount of mouth-puckeringly fragrant vinegar and spicy chilli sauce, they’re a perfect harmony of flavours. The chaoshou (wontons,抄手), bathed in chilli oil or in a light broth, are well worth ordering too.
With so much choice, it’s easy to overlook the 100-year-old, humble Gongting Bakery chain, which produces quality goods using local seasonings and ingredients. There are six locations; one of the most popular is just down the street from Wenshu Monastery (58 Wuyuegong Jie, Qingyang district, 028 8694 2646. Open 8am-10pm daily. 青羊区五岳宫街58号). Everything here is great, but the stars of the show are the taosu (walnut cookies, 桃酥). Get the signature jiaoyan (salt and Sichuan pepper, 椒盐) variety. One jin (500g) buys about a dozen. The buttery texture melts in your mouth, leaving you longing for more.
Believe it or not, there’s a lot to do in Chengdu besides eating. No visit is complete without a stop at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, about 30 minutes by taxi from the city centre (1375 Xiongmao Dadao, Chenghua district, 028 8351 7814. 成华区外北熊猫大道1375 号近北湖). There are outdoor areas where you can see giant pandas at play, and a museum, complete with a formaldehyde-pickled panda penis. You can even pay to hold a baby panda for a photo op. The best time to visit is 8.30-10am, during feeding time. After that the pandas will be doing what they do best – sleep.
A key part of Chengdu’s famously leisurely lifestyle is the teahouse culture. Often, afternoon tea stretches late into the evening as card games and mahjong take over. A visit to an authentic teahouse is essential. The city has hundreds, but the most famous is Heming (inside Renmin Park, 12 Shaocheng Lu, Qingyang district, 028 8613 9234. Open 6am-5.30pm daily. 青羊区少城路12号人民公园内). Located near the entrance to Renmin Park, it offers a great opportunity to spend a lazy afternoon people-watching – bring a pack of sunflower seeds to complete the experience.
Don’t leave Chengdu without catching a Sichuan opera show at the Wu Hou Ci Grand Stage (231 Wuhouci Dajie, Wuhou district, 028 8558 2397. Open 8am-9.30pm daily. 武侯区武侯祠大街231号). Created over 300 years ago in the Qing Dynasty, Sichuan opera remains popular with locals. Skilful singing, acting and comedy characterise these playful shows, as do the performers’ masks, which change colours in the blink of an eye. The changing technique is a guarded secret – see if you can figure it out.
is pricey, with doubles from 1,350RMB, but it has the city’s best amenities and an ace location, with views of the Jin River. Or, for a gorgeous boutique with historic style, try the Old Chengdu Club (www.oldchengduclub. com.cn; doubles from 1,000RMB) near Wenshu Monastery.
For those on a shoestring budget, the Chengdu Mix Hostel
is centrally located and highly rated for its security and atmosphere. Dorms start at 40RMB a bed; private rooms from 88RMB.
Air China flies direct to Chengdu from 1,920RMB return (including taxes).
Jenny Gao writes the food blog Jing Theory
and is the author of the ‘Chengdu Street Snack’ guide (6RMB) available through the Rama travel app for iPhone, iPod and iPad.