Tuesday, December 30, 2008

王妈手撕烤兔 - Mother Wang's Barbecued Rabbit

This is a '老字号' (famous old brand) place for barbecued rabbit, though their best recommendation is the scent as you walk by. The rabbits are stretched out on racks and are turned over charcoal. They taste fantastic, almost cured, and are available here in two flavours only - 五香 (five spice) and 麻辣 (numbing/hot). I've only ever bothered with 麻辣. The servers will take your rabbit and use tongs to pull it to pieces with startling efficiency, then toss the meat with more hot pepper and sesame before wrapping it up. It's fantastic with beer, and I've used leftovers on pizza and to make congee and fried rice.

Barbecued rabbit is usually 30 to 35 rmb per animal. Take out window only; by the Yulin Farmer's Market.

Monday, December 29, 2008

欢迎光临 - Welcome

This blog is about the snacks, restaurants, markets, and cafes of Chengdu, the capital of one of the world's great food regions. The blog is written in English but a lot of Chinese food related words will be used, because I believe the easiest and fastest way to learn about and appreciate Chinese food is via the language. If you are very new to Chinese, on my sidebar are a couple of tools to help with characters; the intention is that use of Chinese will help extend rather than mask readers' understanding. Tips, comments, and questions are welcome: ms dot sushan at gmail dot com

Friday, December 26, 2008

衣冠庙 面馆 - Yi Guan Temple Noodle House

This narrow noodle shop, open to the street, started up earlier this year near the Yi Guan Temple bridge over the first ring road. It attracts enough people at lunch that street vendors usually set up outside and you can get shao bing, dan hong gao, and roasted sweet potatoes outside the door. Table sharing is the norm unless you arrive during a very slow part of the day.

There are respectable 燃面 (combustion noodles) as well as the usual suspects of beef, rib, spicy chicken, or 三鲜 (three flavour). They have wheat noodles, rice noodles, bean threads, and a couple different kinds of chao shou. You can order almost everything by one, two, or three liang; I think it's great that one-liang servings are available since I like to to order one liang of two different kinds of noodle. The ordering procedure is the same as a snack restaurant - you give your order at the counter, then take your till receipt to a server who will bring your food to your seat.

Lately they've added a few new menu items, including an amazing concoction called 干辣鸡面 - dry, spicy chicken noodles. The chicken (bony pieces) has been long simmered with seasonings like cassia, clove, black cardamom, fennel, and tons of hot red pepper. There is not even a hint of numbing from Sichuan peppercorn.

The protocol for eating the bony pieces is to put it all in your mouth, work off the edible parts,and spit the rest onto the table. Some manage to do this gracefully and others eat with an ever widening radius of detritus around their bowls. One liang of 干辣鸡面:

The first time I ate 口蘑面 (mushroom noodles), I thought it was one of the blandest things ever. I ordered it here by mistake (sneaky 蘑 character is not always drawn the same) and was blown away. Now when I approach, the counter lady always guesses I am going to order 口蘑面 and she is usually right. Below, 口蘑面 in front of a bowl of 燃面.


Southeast corner of first ring road and Yong Feng Lu, just near the traffic bridge. Usually closed by dark. Menu all Chinese.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bo Bo Ji (钵钵鸡)

"Server! Chicken heart!" commands a girl from of a cluster of hip young things around a vat of Bo Bo Ji (Bo Bo chicken). The big earthenware bowls are filled with skewered chicken treats like wing tips, intestines, gizzards, or chunks of neck and also sliced vegetables, cocktail sausages, and various tofu products. Like shao kao (barbecue) and chuanchuan (hot pot's poor cousin), you pay by the skewer.

Dan Hong Gao (Mini filled crepes)

This is one of my favourite street foods. The vendor keeps two small metal pans going, and customers line up and choose their fillings. (These little snacks don't score very high on the Street Food Safety Index, however. I look for a clean cart and ingredients that are not all mixed up with each other, plus a batter with beautiful yellow colour from lots of eggs.)

The little filled crepes are completely fresh and tender and just a few bites each.

You can choose any mixture of sweet or savoury fillings. I like to mix up shredded potato and ya cai, and my favourite is peanut butter with one of the jams. Once the word 'tomato' somehow came out of my mouth instead of strawberry, so I ended up with peanut butter and ketchup. Ick!

Tomato Egg Noodles

A broken yolk, edges browned to a crisp, covered with grease and sludge from the wok - in what universe would this be the correct way to cook an egg? But it's one of the best things I've ever tasted on top of a bowl of tomato egg noodles or added to an order of bedspread noodles.

Chengdu's famous tomato egg noodle house on downtown Huaxing street will reportedly soon be lost to redevelopment. There are other 'Huaxing Tomato Egg Noodle' places in town, but copycat versions of chains abound here and you never know if they have a real affiliation with the original or have just stolen the name. Anyhow, I really like this version on Yulin South street. The broth has a little sourness from preserved vegetable, a little garlic, and just enough salt for the tomatoes to shine. It's a perfect breakfast or light lunch for 4-5 rmb.

Address of iconic restaurant on Huaxing Street: 华兴正街4-6号(近王府井)
Yulin: 武侯区玉林南路48号

Chinese Breakfast

Most people when travelling like to eat a familiar breakfast, but breakfast food everywhere is basic, comforting, and economical.

Brunch for less than a dollar: soymilk, vegetable dumplings, an over-easy egg, and pao cai (pickles).

The mighty you tiao (long doughnut, not sweet). Dip it into your warm soy milk or congee. Twenty cents for you tiao and soy milk at this place.

A plate of yumi rou bing (corn and ground pork cakes, dipped in egg and fried) to dip into a bowl of congee.

Earlier this week I asked a class of Basic English students how they would save money on food. I got some of the expected replies, like eat vegetables instead of meat and cook at home instead of eating out, but they had several more interesting suggestions:

Go on a diet.
Eat other people's food.
Look at pictures of food instead of eating.
Sleep later in the morning so that you end up eating fewer meals.

Bedspread Noodles

Bedspread noodles are comfort food - wide sheets of noodle dough in broth with the usual suspects for toppings - suan cai, beef, plain or spicy stewed chicken, and others. Ribs are shown. When I took the picture I had no idea that there were stewed dried peas hiding in the sheets and the combination was unpretentious and perfect. I almost felt like I was eating an Italian pasta and bean soup. Chinese name: 铺盖面 (pu1gai4 mian).

Good bedspread noodles can be found at a noodle shop at this address, in the big plaza opposite the Shuangnan Ito Yokado:

二还路 西1段 92号 6附

Also opposite the big market on 神仙树北路, close to the new Auchan.

Guo Kui

Guo Kui is the name given either to flat breads that are baked, then split and filled like sandwiches or stuffed with meat or sweet things and then pan fried.

The fried kind are my favourite. The stuffed kind are expensive and messy to eat, and it's harder to find safe specimens. However, there is one place by the Sichuan opera house downtown that has amazingly good guo kui; shown below.

Guo Kui are 1.5-2.5 RMB for the fried kind and 3-5 RMB for the sandwich variety. Because of my location I've been insulated from rising food prices back home; how are the frugal cooks managing in North America?

Ran Mian (燃面)

Left front is the star of this post - a bowl of ran mian. In the rear is a slightly more expensive bowl of dan dan mian. In front is a little dish of pao cai and peeking in the far left is a bowl of noodle water to drink. Dan dan mian is one of the only things I could read on a menu when I first got to China so I ended up ordering it a lot and quickly got sick of it. I still eat dan dan mian from time to time but much prefer ran mian, noodles with similar spicy and oily condiments but which have added tang from the ya cai and crunch from the peanuts. Vegetarian versions are often available, and they cost two to three yuan for a little one liang bowl like this.

I haven't made ran mian yet - it is too cheap and easily available at the snack restaurants. But I will miss it a lot when I leave China so here is a recipe that I want to try when I can no longer get it on the street. It is from this Chinese food site, which gives quite a bit of background and explanation of the snack.

You need 3 oz of fresh Chinese wheat noodles, 2 tbs of chopped ya cai (芽菜, a type of preserved vegetable), 2 tbs of chopped roasted salted peanuts, one chopped green onion, 1 tbs of chili oil, 4 tbs of sesame oil, 2 cloves of garlic, 3 tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp of vinegar, 1 pinch ground Sichuan pepper, MSG to taste.

Boil the noodles til al dente (texture is important) and drain; then toss with the sesame oil so they don't stick. Pile noodles into 2 bowls and top with remaining condiments. Everyone stirs the condiments into the noodles with chopsticks before digging in.

Rou Jia Mo

A street food guide I read once recommended patronizing places where more than one family member works - a sign that their little business is popular enough to support a household. This couple works in perfect tandem - he shapes and bakes the bread and she chops up stewed chunks of pork with green pepper and stuffs it inside the round of bread, then moistens the sandwich with a ladle of dark broth before handing it to you. Rou jia mo (肉夹馍) is one of those snacks that can be boring or very, very good if done right. This family's bread is always fresh and crusty on the outside, and the sandwich is always satisfying. Even though they give you a plastic bag to use as a handle, you have to be careful of the juice running over your hands. Rou jia mo is not native to Sichuan (though it resembles the local hot pork guo kui; more on those in the future) but comes from Shaanxi. If you visit Xian you will see it more.

A close up of the sandwich, which costs 2.5 to 3 rmb or 20 to 24 cents. You can add an egg for another half rmb.

Crossing The Bridge Noodles

Crossing the bridge noodles 过桥米线 (guò qiáo mĭxiàn) is an elaborate chicken noodle soup which hails from the southern province of Yunnan. There are many stories of how the dish originated, but the most common describes a scholar who once isolated himself on an island to prepare for an important examination. His wife would bring him rice noodles and other morsels in a rich chicken broth, with a layer of fat on top to keep the soup warm until she reached him. The soup is perfect for slurping up in cooler weather or during flu season. Locally you can order simple versions for eight to twelve yuan (buck to a buck fifty) or more elaborate versions for up to forty yuan, depending on the number and type of stir-ins.

The server brings you a bowl of bubbling chicken broth along with a separate bowl of cooked rice noodles and many little dishes of stir-ins, which often include raw and cooked chicken, quail eggs, raw fish, white fungus, thinly sliced pork, ham, lettuce and tomato, scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and –best of all - a couple pieces of crispy breaded chicken skin. Some servers will unceremoniously dump the ingredients into the broth as soon as they bring it to you, but many people have their own favourite sequence of stir-ins as they concoct the perfect bowl of soup. I like to start with the eggs, chicken, fish, and mushrooms and make sure they are totally cooked before adding the vegetables and fungus. The noodles always go in last. To those of us who grew up with the idea of chicken noodle soup as soothing home cooking, a bowl of crossing the bridge noodles feels exotic and comforting at the same time.

Chengdu has many places that serve the noodles - we even had a branch or two of the famous Brothers Jiang restaurant here. Problem is, many places have less than fresh stir-ins and wan broth. Good ones can be found at Yunnan Mengzi Restaurant - there are two branches I've visited, one on RenMin Middle Road and another on Shaanxi Road behind People's Park.

云南蒙自过桥米线(人民中路店) - 人民中路三段10号

云南蒙自过桥米线 (人民公园) - 陕西街

Chao Shou

Chao shou is a signature Chengdu xiaochi, or snack. This is a basic, classic bowl of chao shou – delicate pork dumplings with a whiff of ginger folded into a hat shapes and floating in a bowl of nearly opaque broth. The broth's whiteness comes from long simmering of bones, and it is often broth that distinguishes a good bowl of chao shou from the lesser versions. On the side is a bowl of plain boiled cabbage and a dish of pao cai, preserved vegetable (cabbage in this case). In cooler weather, chao shou makes a perfect lunch or snack. This being Sichuan, the dumplings often get the spicy treatment and are served with toppings such as stewed chicken pieces (mostly neck and bone), or simply by tossing the cooked dumplings into a pool of aromatic chili oil - hong you chao shou. A bowl of chao shou topped with aromatic stewed beef and cilantro (niu rou chao shou):

Chao shou topped with stewed ribs (pai gu chao shou) was my favourite version until I discovered suan cai chao shouchao shou with sour cabbage. Both suan cai and this particular pao cai are cabbage preserved with salt, chili, and sometimes Sichuan peppercorns, but they are very different in character. Suan cai tastes like it has been preserved much longer - darker, limp shreds that are rather mild in flavour. Pao cai is quite crunchy and tangy. A bowl of suan cai –topped chao shou served with boiled cabbage and a little dish of pao cai is a revelation of the flavours and textures that can be coaxed from this plain Jane vegetable.

Near my house is a little place selling lao ma chao shou, a Chongqing specialty. The ma character means numbing and I am guessing the name refers to the effects of Sichuan pepper. The food of Chongqing is, if anything, even more incendiary and enamored of Sichuan pepper that that of Chengdu. The server warned me that I was ordering something a little spicy but I waved off his concern and received a little bowl of chao shou with cabbage, boiled peanuts, and a topping of scarlet oil. I like the pepper's tingly effect in moderation but don’t enjoy feeling like my mouth and throat are closing up with no feeling. The amount in this bowl of chao shou was definitely in the respiratory arrest category.

Shoe shiners often set up shop beside these little outdoor places to eat and make rounds among the tables, offering potential customers a pair of slippers to wear while they take your shoes to be shined during your lunch.


Jiaozi are small filled dumplings that can be eaten at any time of day and are usually served boiled. Sometimes they are steamed or fried. Like many kinds of noodles here, they are usually sold by weight. Two liang is a good sized serving; order three if you are really hungry. My favourite is egg jiaozi, filled with seasoned egg and chives. Most are filled with pork and something else – chives, bok choi, or mushrooms. Two liang cost three to six kuai (forty five to ninety cents), depending on how nice the filling is. On the table will be little crocks of soy sauce, black vinegar, and chili oil as well as sugar, msg, salt, and raw garlic which the customers use to concoct their perfect bowl of seasoning for dipping.

These are from Dong Bei Jiaozi on Xian Zhong Road.

东北饺子 金牛区西安中路49号

San Da Pao (Three Big Cannons)

This sweet snack usually turns up during local events or near attractions like Wen Shu Yuan (a temple just to the north east of downtown Chengdu). They are three balls of sweetened sticky rice thrown against a metal tray filled with ground sesame and toasted soy. Each ball makes a loud boom against the tray, hence the name. The vendor then douses them in a sweet syrup and hands you your treat.

You can find them on Jinli Street, which has an area where you can buy traditional snacks. There are English signs with at times alarmingly literal translations, and I think these are called Three Big Guns.

Vendor throwing the rice balls against the tray:

La Mian (Hand Pulled Noodles)

Most neighborhoods here in Chengdu have a place for Lanzhou pulled noodles 兰州拉面、 run by Hui (Muslim) people and offering other dishes based on noodles, lamb, and beef.

The noodles are pulled into strands and thrown into a pot where they cook quickly, then are served in a beef broth and topped with a few slices of radish, sliced beef or lamb, and chopped scallions and cilantro on top with a slick of chili oil. The best places have broth with a rich beef flavour and a good jolt of garlic. If you've ordered a fried rice or noodle plate you will get a cup of the broth to drink.The noodles have a fantastic bite to them and go for three to five yuan for a bowl, about forty to seventy cents.

Dou Hua ("Flower" Tofu)

Dou hua is soft, warm tofu covered with toppings that add crunch and flavour. A dou hua vendor usually carries a pole across his or her shoulders with two large baskets attached. One of the baskets contains steaming soft tofu and the other contains the bowls and fixings.

For a while I had avoided dou hua due to a mouth numbing, terrible version I’d bought on Dian Nao Cheng (Computer Street.) One my way home the other day, though, I noticed one lady untraditionally carrying dou hua baskets on her bike and paying obvious attention to both the order and appearance of the condiments. First, she spooned up the tofu and added some ground Sichuan pepper. Then, a sprinkle of msg. Then a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, then chili oil, then chopped preserved vegetable, then crunchy dried soybeans, and last of all chopped green onion. We customers accepted the bowl, then stirred everything up and ate. She was only charging one yuan (15 cents) per order, when some vendors charge one and a half.

Shao Bing

Shao bing are small flatbreads that the vendor rolls out with either a little sugar or chili paste inside and usually sesame on the outside. They are freshly baked in a hollow oven, a kind of portable tandoor. The oven makes them crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and they are a perfect bite in the mornings or in colder weather. My neighborhood shao bing vendor sets up shop in the mornings only, but around busier areas of Chengdu like Chun Xi road you can find shao bing all day.

Some street foods can be fantastic from one vendor and inedible from another, but shao bing are among the most consistently good sidewalk snacks as long as they are fresh. The vendor asks ji ge, how many, and if you want tian de (sweet) or xian de (savoury). I love both kinds. They cost half a yuan, or about eight cents each.