Tuesday, March 31, 2009

洛带 - Luodai

Luodai is a town outside of Chengdu with 90% Hakka population. The language, buildings, and food that you can find here, distinct from Sichuanese, make Luodai one of my favourite day trips outside Chengdu.

We first went to climb the Jinlong Great Wall, which has a long history of about eight years and leads up a small mountain to the Jinlong temple at the top. The climb is an hour or so, depending on your fitness, and there is a breezy little tea house at the top where you can get chrysanthemum tea for Y5. There is nothing better than sitting with a glass of tea on a mountain after a hike.

One new thing I noticed this year was the number of places selling grilled deer and pheasant skewers. This is pheasant.

They were selling beggar's chicken at the gate. I got a Y5 leg. The paper outside had a coating of dirt, like it had been buried. Inside the chicken was wrapped with a red pepper inside another leaf. It was a tad dry but had a good flavour. The vendor told me very seriously to unwrap the chicken before eating it.

Back in town, the side streets off of the 'ancient town' area have many fruit and nut vendors. They had big piles of almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans in the shell, and some things that looked like large, flat, black bean pods. Pecans and the 'beans' I had never seen in Chengdu. Anyone know what these are?

One thing I always look forward to in Luodai are the qian (or quan) si bing (thousand-string cakes) and this time we got to watch them being prepared. It's pretty complicated - first they stretch the dough into thin strands that are oiled and then cut. They then form the cake around a little filling, shape it, and then fry it in oil. The fry person has tongs to shape the cake during frying so that it stays flat. Pretty complicated, but worth the trouble. They shatter when you bite into them and are very good. I like the sweet ones best.

I was with a friend from Canada who wanted to taste everything possible while in China, and spied the scorpions on skewers. She invited me to eat scorpion and I could not refuse as a matter of face, though I wouldn't have chosen to eat one on my own. The vendor asked if we wanted hot pepper, and I nodded automatically. He put the skewer into hot oil for a few seconds, then dusted the scorpions with hot pepper and handed us the treat. We couldn't really taste anything except for the hot pepper, but they were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a good burn from the pepper, and very good. I would eat them again.

Ancient town street:

We didn't get to try the shuang xin fen or eat Hakka grilled fish at Jiu Dou Wan restaurant this time, but definitely will next time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Suan Cai Bedspread Noodles

New favourite flavour for bedspread noodles - suan cai. Most places that advertise suan cai noodles give you a bowl of plain noodles topped with sour preserved vegetable, and suan cai rousi contains meat. Even though this is a bowl of plain suan cai noodles, bits of pork were mixed in. I liked it a lot.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jintang Red Oil Chao Shou

This place is in the same complex as my bedspread noodle house, across the second ring from the southwest Ito Yokado. They do chao shou and a few other snacks. One interesting thing on their menu board is 蒜泥抄手, or garlic 'mud' chao shou, which has the dumplings tossed in spicy oil and pureed raw garlic to intense effect. Today I decided to try their plain red oil dumplings:

They were fine, and much hotter than at True Flavour. I regretted passing up bedspread noodles to eat them though. An older worker sat at a back table making chao shou between drags of a cigarette.

Address: 金堂红油抄手二环西一段92号附13号海美伦酒店1楼 In a big complex across from the Shuangnan Ito Yokado.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Pipa (枇杷) are soft, sweet apricot coloured fruit that bruise easily and appear for a few weeks in the spring. These are the first I have seen this year. During the fruit's short season the fruit sellers display huge boxes of pipa at the very front of the store, then it is gone as soon as it has arrived. English name is 'loquat'.

Jinli Street

Once I contacted a local food writer asking about good places to take visitors and the first place she mentioned was Jinli Street, near Wuhou temple. "But the food there is not fresh, and so expensive", I countered. (It's one or two yuan more than the same products sold outside the area.) She replied that Jinli is for visitors to see the local food, not necessarily taste it. Her answer made a lot of sense to me. There is a huge variety of common and uncommon snacks served up here. For visitors who will only be in Chengdu for a short period of time, want to taste a wide variety of snacks, and are Chinese challenged, Jinli Snack Street is a great place to come.

All food workers here wear hats and masks. All products have (sometimes confusing) English labels. Buckwheat noodle press:

These are tofu puffs with seasoning - sweet and spicy on the left and mala (numbing and spicy) on the right. Fresh ones are amazing, but as you can see they make big stacks of everything ahead of time and let them sit far too long. This booth had fried ice cream too, which I almost ordered. The lamb skewers here are deep fried instead of grilled though, and are tough.

You could tell the fellow being handed this pile of grilled squid was really looking forward to it:

There are also lots of options for those who don't want to eat spicy food, such as these 'lu' ribs:

Cold spring rolls with different types of skins doused with hot oil, plus the rarely seen fried kind:

Tofu with various toppings:

The Saturday crowd:

There is a Dairy Queen on one of the newly built sections of Jinli Street, in case you overdo it on spicy stuff, and a Starbucks in the old section.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Casa Mia

Most Western food in Chengdu is pretty expensive and pretty bad. ('Western' food from a Chinese perspective means North/South American, European and Middle Eastern places.) Sometimes, though, an expat just wants to sit in a nicely appointed room, order in English, and eat with a fork. Most of the Western places have free wireless too, a major draw for me today since my apartment had no power. I almost never go out for Italian but found myself on Kehua North Road wanting anything but Peter's, so decided to check out Casa Mia a couple of doors down. The menu has pictures and English but my server didn't speak English and didn't know much about the menu in any language.

Caesar salad. Still looking for the Caesar salad in town that I would reorder, but this one came the closest with real cheese and croutons that tasted homemade, if not that day. Dressing had little Ceasar flavour, but had the off texture of dressings that are thickened with some kind of plant starch. And it feels funny to gripe about the authenticity of something that was invented in Mexico, and is considered 'Italian food' in North America, but...tomatoes on a Caesar salad are just wrong.

Chicken sandwich: grilled chicken breast, salad dressing (too sweet to be real mayo), lettuce, tomato, cheese, on toast with side of freezer style fries. Sandwich was fine; adequate-fine, not good-fine. The cheese didn't really register; I was into the second half of the sandwich before I realized it had cheese.

Well-washed ketchup bottle.

The server kind of forgot about me but I managed to order a very bitter espresso to finish. Casa Mia has a huge menu and there is likely better tasting stuff on it somewhere, but today didn't inspire me to return and hunt for it. The interior is nicely decorated as well, but...there were a couple of very casually dressed young guys hanging around, perhaps off duty staff or their friends. One of them lit up, making me wish I had chosen to eat at one of the casual Chinese places that are open to the street instead. Next time I am on Kehua North road and needing lunch, I probably will.

Address: 卡萨米亚西餐厅 科华北路123号

Monday, March 16, 2009

汇川鱼馆 - The Fish Place at Moziqiao

Seafood (海鲜 hăixiān) is less common in Chengdu unless you go to high end or Cantonese restaurants. What we do have in abundance is freshwater fish (河鲜 héxiān) - river eels, Chongqing-style grilled fish, 'cold pot' fish,the shrimp-like critters that live in rice fields, and the 'water boiled' fish dishes often found at home style restaurants. The Fish Place at Moziqiao specializes in freshwater fish preparations. Most people we saw there were eating the incendiarily spicy hot pepper fish (辣子鱼 làzi yú).

I can never remember all the names and preparations of fish, but ordering is not too difficult. There is reportedly no menu at this restaurant (we definitely didn't see one) - the boss comes to your table, eyes you up, and figures out what and how much you want to eat. You then agree to whatever he suggests. I told him that it was our first visit, that one of my guests didn't care for fish so we needed an additional dish, and that we could eat medium-hot food. I then just nodded at all the suggestions even though I didn't understand them all. (Thought we were getting tofu, but nothing arrived.) The room was full of tables of working guys so was pretty smoky, and we were in the very back. Service was not exactly warm but very efficient and competent.

Our cold dish was wood ear mushroom mixed with sesame oil, garlic, and chopped green onion - a pleasure. It came with a textbook jing jiang rousi (Beijing sauce pork shreds).

The next dish to arrive was baby taro and bok choy:

We then got our pot of fish. Very tender fish with a tinge of smokiness in numbing and spicy broth. The fish had all its bones but they weren't too hard to handle.

Fish head soup to finish. I'd really like to see what else the kitchen can do, so next time will ask for my fish done up non-spicy.

My English name for this establishment is a bit arbitrary; the real name translates to something like 'where the rivers converge'. Address: 汇川鱼馆 一环路南二段磨子桥科华巷3号, behind New Century Computer city, very close to Moziqiao overpass on the first ring.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cold Dishes at Tomato Egg Noodle on Yulin

Chengdu is known for being a leisurely city and there is no shortage of activities to while away the hours. A sure sign of warmer weather is people outside enjoying leng dan bei (冷淡杯) in the afternoons or evenings - sitting and chatting over a couple small plates of cold food and a drink (usually beer). Leng dan bei is also eaten in place of or after dinner, and can stretch late into the evening. Restaurants that are open long hours often have simple cold dishes available continuously; things like cooked vegetables, seasoned tofu, mixed noodles, and stewed assorted meats or other animal parts served with a pile of hot pepper.

I walked into the tomato egg noodle place on Yulin before noon, hoping to try some of their steamed dishes. They told me I could order noodles but the regular menu wasn't available yet. I was starving so wandered over to the cold dish area, which had preserved eggs with onions, potato shreds, tiny seasoned potatoes, 'tiger skin' green peppers, bitter melon, marinated dry tofu, stewed ribs, rabbit heads, duck wing tips, and more. I asked for a plate of ya cai seasoned green beans and one of sliced fat pork to nibble on before my noodles came. I also asked for the beans to be heated up, which they did in a microwave. The pile of hot pepper/Sichuan pepper/salt/msg was needed to cut the richness of the pork. It was good, but after using the slices of pork to convey the hot pepper mixture to my mouth the noodles didn't seem to have much flavour. Best to eat your tomato egg noodles first.

Address: 武侯区玉林南路48号

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Renmin Rd, 1st South Section

There are often street vendors scattered on this stretch of road just south of Tianfu Square, the heart of the city. Today at around one thirty there was a bigger assortment than I'd ever seen: jian bings, dan hong gao, 'Korean' fried quail eggs on a stick, Taiwanese rice wraps, dou hua, cold seasoned noodles, and fresh peeled pineapple and water chestnuts.

The vendors call it Brazilian barbecue: pork roasted on a vertical spit, chopped up with lettuce and seasoned with pepper and stuffed into a flatbread, for 4 rmb:

One of the stations advertised seafood wontons (海鲜馄饨 hăixiān húntún). They were making the wontons by hand with what looked like pure ground pork. I inquired what was 'seafood' about the wontons and they pointed out their condiments, which included seaweed and dried shrimp:

Not bad for 3 rmb, but I would ask for no hot pepper and no Sichuan pepper next time:

Everyone had dispersed by four when I walked by again. Perhaps the cops had come by.

西米露 - Tapioca 'Dewdrops'

Last week was chilly, and this warm cup of taro flavoured tapioca hit the spot. This size of tapioca, which I also like ordering in drinks, is 西米 xi1mi3 and when it is served as something to spoon up rather than drink it's usually called 西米露 xi1mi3lu4. Larger tapioca, like in bubble tea, are 珍珠 zhen1zhu1.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

大长今 - Korean near Guanghua Village

Had a Sichuanese place all picked out to try today, but when I got there the staff was all outside playing majiang. They would have served me, but interrupting a majiang game is not the path taken to stellar meals in Chengdu so I ended up halfway down the block in, you guessed it, a Korean place - 大长今 (Da Chang Jin). The boss is from Korea and welcomed all customers warmly. He also spent quite a few minutes chatting with me about Korea and asking me about my business in China. His wife later came out and introduced herself as well. It was a real relief to order in Korean and be understood, and I was very excited that the menu had jajangmyun (noodles with 'fried sauce' full of cubes of meat, and vegetables). I also looked for miyokuk (Korean seaweed soup, or 海带汤 in Chinese) on the menu and they offered to make me some. I received, gratis, a little bowl with less than a cup of very garlicky Korean seaweed soup, which was a bit too fresh but a pleasure.

The service was so hospitable I wish the food had been better. When the boss found out I had visited Korea he said that the jajangmyun would not taste the same. It was pretty bland, and the kimchi was sour and too salty. They have homestyle cooking like kimchi chigae and soon dubu and snacks like dok bokki and kim bap, but they are also located on a whole street full of restaurants to be explored; probably will not be returning soon.

Address: 光华大道西街西南财经大学南二门外

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

汉城轩 - Seoul Pavilion

Near Gaoshengqiao is the Roman Leisure Area, a curious collection of European style buildings all joined with walkways. Out front is a replica of the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, a la Paris. The alleys in between the buildings are labelled in traditional Chinese Characters: Rome Street One, Rome Street Two, up to Rome Street Six. The shops and walkways are full of antique and jade jewellery and art sellers, but there are all kinds of small stores here - DVD vendors, travel agencies, massage places. The bottom level especially has several empty shops but many vendors set up outside and there are a few areas that appear very tough to keep clean.

One of the more dark and greasy alleys (#6, bottom level) has two Korean restaurants opposite each other. I visited one called Hancheng Xuan, or Seoul Pavilion. The interior really takes you away from the street - the place has one of those platforms where you remove your footwear first and then sit on the floor. They also have normal tables. I came in during the afternoon, and there were a couple of other tables occupied with ladies lunching.

Plastic bowls, metal chopsticks, and pan chan, counter clockwise from bottom centre: radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, sauteed hot green peppers with dried anchovies, sesame bean sprouts, and sweet and spicy pickled cucumbers. The one on the bottom right I could not identify - white, chewy strips in red pepper. The server later cleared things up - pig skin. The pan chan were all house made, and tasted fine, but lacked real crunch and brightness.

My default initial order in a new Korean place is dol sot bibimbap. This version was pretty good: rice with a good crust on it from the pot, spinach, radish, carrot, sprouts, chopped beef, lots of kochujang (Korean sweet red pepper paste), the egg on top.

I did find the menu confusing since I can't read Korean and had to translate what I wanted mentally into Chinese. The server wasn't much help and, typically, couldn't understand any Korean names of dishes. I ordered what I thought were some grilled vegetables, and she came back and said that order didn't make sense and suggested another type of grilled vegetable. I agreed, and this came: lettuce, rice cake, lotus root, potato, red pepper, all doused in a sauce with a heavy shot of kochujang. I believe it was cooked on top of an iron plate. Not pretty, but absolutely delicious and worth coming back for.

When the bill came I was charged only Y15 for the bibimbap; the side of vegetables was free. With pan chan and barley tea included, this place is tops in the value for money column. (Other menu items are in the Y20+ range) Because of the ok-but-lackluster pan chan I figure it would not be a barbecue destination, but would definitely drop in for a bowl of noodles or tofu stew if I was in the area again.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

田园素食煮艺 - Tian Yuan Art of Vegetarian Cooking

Chinese vegetarian, with its roots in temple food, is well known for mock meat and dishes made from tofu and wheat gluten. I don’t normally walk into any vegetarian restaurant expecting to eat really, really, well – the cooking usually is more about avoiding meat than showcasing vegetables, and restaurants that cook for omnivores often do a better job of preparing vegetables. However, the ability of the vegetarian restaurants to do really beautiful and creative food within strict dietary confines is really impressive when it is done well. Tian Yuan (Field and Garden) is a newer place near the first ring, so I went in to check it out.

The interior looks much more like a Western than a Chinese place:

The well-trained servers are very efficient as they bring your menu and place setting and top up your millet sprout tea. The menu has pictures but no English, and can be confusing since this is its own genre of food. The servers are very helpful with suggestions and can answer questions about the ingredients though I haven’t met any who speak English.

Crispy tofu skin wrapped around carrots, mushrooms, noodles:

We also ordered a dish of vegetables, mushrooms, and mock meatballs wrapped in tofu skin that was just ok.

Millet sprout tea, edible (extremely sharp!) toothpicks, pao cai:

The last time I went I really wanted to try their version of stuffed eggplant fritters (茄饼 qié bĭng) or the spicy rice crust (锅巴 guōbā) dish that a previous server had recommended, but let the server talk me into a couple of dishes that she said were new and not on the menu.

Three treasure 'bai zhuo' (bái zhuó sānbăo 白灼三宝) Fake snails, mushrooms, beansprouts, spicy red and green peppers, narrow mushroom stalks. Nothing wrong with the ingredients, but the combination isn’t doing anything for them. The server said this was a very healthy recipe. No argument on that point.

Homestyle sea cucumber (家常海参 jiācháng hăishēn). Apparently sea cucumber is animal-like enough to be given the fake protein treatment. ‘Homestyle’ flavour on a Sichuan menu is usually spicy, sour, and a little funky from spicy bean paste. There were juicy cubes of bamboo shoot mixed in too and the greens on the perimeter (though cold) were a very welcome addition to the plate. Whoever made this was paying definite attention to both flavour and texture. Delicious.

Tian Yuan is all about promoting vegetarian eating as well. On my first visit, I was given a couple of pamphlets. One of them had a table illustrating the qualities of different vegetable proteins, and had cartoon animals saying things like ‘We are your friends!’ and ‘Thank you for your love!’. The other had a long list of famous vegetarians, which seemed to include nearly everyone in history who has made any kind of contribution to science, religion, medicine, or entertainment.

If resemblance to actual meat dishes is the point the food at Tian Yuan does not really succeed, but the cooking is good enough to enjoy for its own sake and very reasonably priced for this style of restaurant. They score points for having a nice and comfortable interior and the service is professional and accommodating. Looking forward to going back and exploring more of the menu.

Address: 成都市衣冠庙超洋路香槟梧桐二楼; very near first ring and Yiguan Temple. Website here (all Chinese).