Sichuan might just be the provincial queen of Chinese food. Though every region of the country has its own unique and wonderful flavours, Sichuan encompasses one of the eight major styles of cooking in China, one of the four most beloved, and easily the single most exported style of Chinese food. You’ll find Sichuanese restaurants the world over, from New York City to small towns in Turkey and side streets in Kyrgyzstan.
In 2011, Sichuan’s capital – Chengdu – was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, itself hosting a recognised subgenre of Sichuanese cooking. Food is life in Chengdu – locals love to eat and eat well. Spice and heat are used liberally here thanks to the native Sichuan peppercorn, which produces a mouth-numbing sensation known in Chinese as mala.
A city of more than 16 million, Chengdu is stacked with enough food outlets selling Sichuan’s most famous dishes, that a full lifetime wouldn’t be enough to sample them all. If you have a spare day in the Sichuanese capital, there’s only one thing to do: eat eat eat (with a few historical stops for digestive purposes, too). Here’s how.
Gobble down dumplings and explore serene Wenshu Monastery
The early hours of a morning foodie tour of Chengdu are of course about breakfast. There are two ways to find your breakfast in this city. One is to pop out onto the street and wander until you see a vendor cooking up something enticing. It won’t be long – breakfast is a street food affair in China, and you’ll easily run across little carts selling all sorts of steamed buns, dumplings and noodles. The other option is to head to Xi Yue Cheng Tan Dou Hua, which opens at 7.30am, for a classic Chengdu breakfast staple: Zhong’s dumplings. These are boiled pork dumplings slathered with soy sauce and chilli oil, and they make a perfect awakening fuel for a day of food and historic sights.
From here, hail a taxi, summon a Didi (China’s Uber) or hop on the number 52 bus to Wenshu Monastery. This working Buddhist temple – Chengdu’s largest and most well preserved – is thick with incense smoke and worshippers making offerings to various golden deities. If you are ready for a snack, nip into the popular temple restaurant onsite for a vegetarian meal, or grab a bowl of liangfen (chilled mung-bean noodles in spicy vinegar sauce) from Dongzi Kouzhang Lao’er Liangfen, across the street at the southeast corner of the temple.
Sample Chengdu’s most classic dish, mapo doufu
You really can’t visit Chengdu without sampling what is arguably the city’s most famous dish: mapo doufu. The dish consists of fresh tofu cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of mince pork, Sichuan peppercorns and chilli oil. The most famous place to sample mapo doufu in Chengdu is Chen Mapo Doufu, an upmarket local chain with multiple outlets around the city. Conveniently, one is situated across from Wenshu Monastery, at the southeast corner, so you won’t have far to waddle from your morning explorations to lunch.
Snack through the Wide and Narrow Alleys and have tea in People’s Park
Full up, grab a taxi or Didi to the Wide and Narrow Alleys (宽窄巷子), a series of restored Qing-dynasty alleyways full to the brim with shops, bakeries and street food stalls, and visitors elbowing one another for a piece of the action. You can walk off your breakfast exploring hipster art stores and beautifully presented bookshops. Make sure to sample some snacks along the way – look for jiandui (煎堆), deep fried glutinous rice balls covered in a sweet glaze and sesame seeds.
From here, it’s a pleasant 20-minute saunter east to People’s Park – Chengdu’s finest green space. It’s a local gathering point, and a perfect place to walk off the final remnants of your mapo doufu. Once your feet tire, settle in for the most classic of Chengdu experiences: an afternoon sipping tea at open-air He Ming Teahouse. It’s located right in the centre of the park, so you won’t have to wander long to find it. Choose your tea (there are English menus available), and a cup with loose leaves and a huge thermos of boiling water will be brought to your table for endless sipping.
Dress up for a minimalist gastronomic feast and cocktails with a view
In the evening, step away from the busy streets and into the tiny zen dining room at Yu Zhi Lan for a meal worthy of a Michelin star. Chef Lan Guijun is well-known among Chinese foodies for his minimalist, modern interpretations of classic Sichuanese fare, and you’ll need to settle in for this leisurely, 25-course meal.
Complete the evening by nipping up to the 27th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Chengdu, where the open-air FLAIR is a cocktail lounge where you can finish off your whirlwind day of dining with a digestif overlooking the city lights.