18 July 2017

Sichuan Street Food Pilgrimage - Chengdu Part 1, Arrival

We make it to Sichuan for a couple of weeks of eating, starting in Chengdu, which has always been a food dream city of ours, and ending with big fat panda bottoms.

Chengdu looks like this. It's a shiny new city on top of an ancient one.  We would have loved to have seen the mid-20th century Chengdu filled with street food and hutongs,  as described by our culinary hero, Fuschia Dunlop, in her China memoir Sharks Fin & Sichuan Pepper, but we love 21st century boomtime China all the same.

Chengdu has large country town vibe, surprising in a city of 10 million folks, but then again a population of 10 million IS a country town in China. Also surprising was the wealth, Audi's and snazzy shopping centres everywhere.

Our primary objective was of course food, Sichuan is uber famous for the stuff. Our other obsession is walking, we love exploring cities on foot, with a camera and Googlemaps. It's less stylish than flaneuring, and less edgy than urbex - so we call it flanerding, or suburbex.

Like every Chinese city we've been to - Chengdu is excellent for urban wandering - flat, wide streets, new and old areas, new and old money, riverside paths and loads of parks, great public transport, even a few tourist attractions. China builds remarkably liveable cities, air quality aside. Oh, and there's pandas.

Our first morning we hit the streets hungry and pick the first joint on W Yulong St near our hostel for breakfast. This street is soon to be gentrified so we are happy find somewhere so awesome nearby. Many shopfronts looked like they were on limited time, the area is slowly being renovated and some whole strips were pulled down or deserted.

We point'n'order a simple bowl of mian (thin wheat noodles), cooked just to the bite, topped with crisp pork mince and smashed yellow beans. There's a pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl that you mix through, stir and eat. 8 yuan a bowl. This combo, either in soup or dry, we would eat repeatedly through the trip and grew to wake up and crave it.

After breakfast we wander streets surrounding the city centre we seek great looking joints like this setting up for the office worker lunch rush.

Chengdu's markets have the snazziest of meat stalls, artisanal and mood lit with eye-popping cuts of pork, fresh, cured and aged. The meat would not look out of place in a French market. We dream of transporting this to Eveleigh Markets in Sydney where people pay eight bucks for a steamed freaking pork bun, we'd rake it in.

We discuss meat export opportunities with a local expert, synergies abound.

This fellow is very shy...

...but overcomes his stagefright, a true pro.

We sniff around the mostly low-rise, tree lined streets on the inner city outskirts. We settle on this ye olde gem of a restaurant for lunch.

It's a bainmarie-of-love China style, we've hit right on lunch time so it's all super fresh.

We sit outside with our mini-feast, watching China go by. Happy. Big bowl of soup with huge hunks of radish was essential to the table.

Pork feet chopped into small pieces, jellied skins, bones and meaty pieces in a deep braised red sauce.

Mix of shredded red chilli and carrot, smashed cucumber and shredded tofu skins.

This dapper chap asks if he can take a photo of us eating lunch - sure, no worries. He then snaps takes what seemed like a hundred shots from several different angles over several hundred awkward seconds. Weird.

For dessert we line up at this street cart.

...but the dude just walked off, go figure. Sometimes vendors assume us gweilos just want to take pictures and not actually eat anything. We have to grin, mime and point extra hard to let it be known we want eaties, not just photies. But this guy buggered off to eat his own produce and watch telly in his mate's shop. No dessert for us.

This guy was equally as standoffish.

More random wandering brings to one of those ye-olde worlds areas so popular in China - walking streets with new old buildings, kitchsy chops and funfair food.

...and tea houses galore. We soon learn what billions of folks know already - tea houses in this part of China are awesome, welcome to everybody, and everywhere - like a pub but super chilled and sober, we wish we could transport this concept back home. We start off at a fancy tea house up near the Wenshu Temple because Alison is a fancy person. Shawn just likes to think he's fancy but ends up schmancy.

The teas are remarkably different in tastes and looks, and utterly delicious - if we lived in China we we would get in to serious tea nerdism. This rose petal tea is delicate and fragrant.

Another redeeming feature of the tea house is the gentle flow of food vendors, sweets especially. This vendor sells 'Ding sweets', hard nougat like broken sweets that are broken up with a metal chisel that makes a ding when used to break them up.

Our favourite was this honeycomb like spun sugar coated with sesame seeds.

One street of tea houses was scaffolded over for renovations yet the teahouse continued on the footpath with comfy cane chairs and extra special tea drinkers.

This is the style of street vendor we remember most from chengdu - a hotplate on wheels, point'n'pick and the nice man while heat it up for you, mostly likely stirred around with some Sichuan pepper. Everything comes with Sichuan pepper.

This is our favourite fashion slogan of the trip - 'aeroplane of idiots'. It's up there with our other favourite t-shirt slogan - 'it is always the same elephant.' And that's the second best chubby baby in China. The best baby we saw had even chubbier cheeks and a five deep queue of admirers lining up for selfies.

We're staying in a quiet part of the city, which kind of suits our jet lagged brains, we pick somewhere low key and local for dinner around the back streets near the hostel.

It doesn't look pretty but it sure tastes pretty. The pork belly was richly braised, piled up on rice with pickled mustard and greens, like a Chengdu pork rice. The meat was so super fatty it almost defeated us.

We booked a panda tour through our hostel. You can easily do it yourself - just grab a taxi or train to the Panda park on the outskirts of Chengdu - but a tour forces us to get up and see the park in the quieter early hours of the day, it's mayhem by mid/late morning. And the guide doesn't speak a word of English - perfect.

The guide knows which enclosures to hit at which time of day saving a lot of guesswork and legwork - the park is quite large and the panda action is seasonal. At the first sight of the pandas Alison cried, real tears and all. They are that amazing to see, even if they aren't in the wild.

awwww. Baby pandas in their nursery. It's hard to believe they are real.

Back in town it's still early. We stumble upon a resto / shopfront doing what looked like a kind of Sichuan kebab shop with trays of shredded meat in the window.

The 'Sichuan kebab' is a simple masterpiece - superfresh bread and spicy meat - what else does humankind need?

We seek further snackage from this lady.

Chips! Well sort of - they are not quite cooked according to our Western tastebuds, but we soon get used to that. The have a nice snap and crunch to them, dressed with a sauce of Sichuan pepper.

Universities are always worth a walk through in a big city - there's a fair chance of some trees and space - we find some calm as we take a breather watching uncles fish and photograph birds using bazooka sized lenses.  This time we don't find the canteen however.

We sniff the university's outskirts and underskirts for restaurants, liking the look of this one.

We order using interpretative dance, grinning and pointing at a small mountain of kang po chicken that is being devoured whole by two teeny skinny twenty-something girls. The appetites of Chinese girls will always be something of amazement to us.

Did we order this? We're not sure, it looks good anyway - tofu cakes and pork mince.

The veggie stir fry wasn't quite what we were hoping for but it is a good match for our other dish.

We wander back towards our hostel via the riverside which is all tree-lined and lovely for walking or hanging around.

The tea tastes as good as it looks. It's not super cheap, but it buys you the right to sit at the table and long as you damn well please. The tea comes with a large thermos of hot water to top it up, we end up relaxed and hydrated. We wish we could bring the Chengdu teahouse experience back to Australia, it's like a healthy version of an Australian beer garden, low key and chilled.

Serious kicking back - these folks never stopped laughing in the two hours we sat there.

From a roving hawker we grab some tofu - this one chilled and sweet...

...this one is fire and spice countered with cool refreshing soft tofu - a reverse mullet of a dish, party at the front and business at the back.

Poodle car park attendant.

So far central Chengu seemed quiet and low-rise but then we find the city centre proper, where thousands and thousands and thousands of folks do what folks do in China, walk around, gawk, window shop and snack.

Panda cheese tart. Yes.

We're given a choice of warm or cool cheese tart - we wisely go warm, it's gooey and cheese-cakey and not quite as good when we returned later in the trip - there's a matter of luck getting them at just the right temperature.

We are impressed at how the youngsters are eating very local foods rather than hamburgers and Coke.

This style of resto is huge - we don't know what they are called - we call them stick restaurants - precooked meat and veg on skewars dunked in spicy sauce - loaded with Sichuan pepper of course.

Food is wonderfully far less globalised in this part of the world, even teenagers hanging out snack on very Sichuan looking stuff.

Fashionistas on the prowl...

No comment.

We find room for another street snack we've eyed-off earlier.

Sausage on a stick! It looks great but it's not up in our list of mystery-meat wonderfoods - a bit too sweet meat rolled in Sichuan pepper - fun all the same.

There's one kick-arse looking restaurant down the road from our hostel - a Sichuan hotpot joint that is so popular they have set up special facilities for the ever present queue out the front - chairs, snacks, drinks, big screen TV.  We kick ourselves for not getting in the queue and trying it. It was Shawn's fault.

A streetside breakfast of steamed dimmies and soy milk.

No matter how much you modernise China, folks still love and old style outdoor market, and that's awesome.

We find a restaurant with a table looking out on this little shop alley leading down to the market.

We order by point and pray...

It works out a treat - steaming hot noodle soup with bread for dunkies on the side.

We dream of staying here a month being able to bring home all these ready-made wonders from the market. There's never enough time and stomach space on these trips.

Cake lady.

Charcoal rotisserie rabbit...

Sichuan pepper is in pretty much everything in Chengdu, though surprisingly it's often mild in the chili department.

We take a breather in small park, munching on these faux-cream filled biscuits we bought from cake lady. We bought way too much cake, everything comes in bulk, so we gave the rest to some uncle hanging out with the pigeons in the park. He was more than happy. We wondered how he was going to explain it to his missus.

Next time we visit Chengdu we'll stay at the Caesarean Hotel, though we might prop a chair up against the door at night... Our other pick for best hotel name is Chengdu Celebrity Upper Class Hotel.

Later one we line up this hawker lady by a park...

She wooshes noodles and spice in a bowl...

Cold noodles with chili, loads of garlic, sichuan pepper and a healthy gloss of oil. This one of those simple wonder dishes - a perfect storm of garlic, carbs and umami.

We always end up in the loveliest of places. Not long before this in a nicer part of town a boy of about ten years glides up alongisde on a segway and casually chats to us gweilo strangers as we walk down the street. He tells us he just been to Brisbane on a school exchange and loved it very much. They went to the Gold Coast and it rained. 'What was your favourite thing about Australia?' Alison asks the boy. He mulls this over briefly. 'Ice cream!' he says. We admire his manners and his relaxed confidence, and we admire China.

Along the same lovely arterial road we find these Sichuan pepper filled pastries are amazing when served hot and fresh off the grill, light and crunchy pastry filled with mouth tingling Sichuan pepper.

We couldn't finish our pies so we found somebody who could assist.

This chap offered to assist us crossing the road.

As the sun goes down we sink a couple of beers on the steps outside a convenience store watching a mass of folks stream through this walking street...

Fancy a pint?

We try the rabbit heads - a Chengdu classic - it tastes like Sichuan pepper, a common theme so far. Almost everything has Sichuan pepper in it, for some reason we didn't expect Sichuan pepper to be everywhere in Sichuan, liked there'd be baked Alaska everywhere in Alaska. But there is. We reckon even baked Alaska would have Sichuan pepper in Sichuan. The Sichuan pepper in Sichuan tastes sweeter, fresher and fruitier than what we've been cooking with at home.

For dinner we try this little stall in an outdoor mall run by a super tops old uncle and auntie.

Sichuan skeddie - noodles with pork mince and Sichuan pepper...

Sichuan skeddie - with corn!

As we head out of town we find a little resto upstairs at Chengdu's super modern train station.

Not bad for a train station feed eh?

We love China.


  1. I love China too! The eats in random places are the best! I was in Chengdu 12 years ago and it didn't look nearly as modernised as it does now

  2. The food adventures in China are fantastic fun. I was in Chengdu two years ago and did the same thing; I just walked all day and every time I saw something interesting...I stopped and ate it. Reading this blog took me straight back there!!! Great read.


Thanks for your comment joy - please keep your musings happy - if you want to complain about a restaurant please do it on a restaurant review site (or your own blog) - we're all about celebrating cultural diversity and the great eats that come along with it :-)

Our ethics: We pay for all our own meals and travel (though sometimes Mum shouts us).