Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hot Pot Menu

If you ask anyone, foreigner or local, what food they associate with Sichuan they will always mention hot pot. This post, which I will be revising and updating, is a basic guide to the things you might find on a typical hot pot menu in Chengdu. The list is in general order of how you might eat hot pot - first fish, then meats, then vegetables, then tofu, and finally noodles.

The Soup

The soup (汤,tāng) varies quite a bit between hot pot places. The Baidu dictionary lists over a hundred kinds of Sichuan hot pot, but one of the easiest kinds to start with is the combination of spicy red and mild white soup known as yuanyang. You can later branch out into the suancai, tomato, or lenguoyu (cold pot fish) styles. The basics:

鸳鸯, yuānyāng, half spicy and half mild (white) soup
白汤, báitāng, not spicy (white broth)
红汤, hóngtāng, red and spicy broth
未辣, wèilà, red broth with a little heat
中辣, zhōnglà, medium spicy red broth

Dipping Sauce

The next order of business is the little bowl of dipping sauce (油碟 yóudié). This is usually a sesame oil or oyster sauce base, and there will be stir-ins available including garlic, cilantro, fresh chilies, 'gan haijiao' (dried hot peppers), vinegar, salt, and msg.

芝麻油, zhīma yóu, sesame oil
蚝油, háoyóu, oyster sauce

To Drink

You want something to cool down the palate. Beer is good, peanut milk is magic.

啤酒, píjiŭ, beer
豆奶, dòunăi, peanut milk

Fish and Such

Eels are very popular and are invariably found on the hot pot menu. Shrimp dumplings are highly recommended, if your place has them.

鳝鱼, shànyú, freshwater eel,
鱿鱼, yóuyú, squid
(大)鱼头, dàyútóu, (big) fish head
鱼皮, yúpí, fish skin,
虾饺, xiājiăo, shrimp dumplings
牛蛙, niúwā, bullfrogs
黄辣丁, huánglàdīng, yellow catfish?
带鱼, dàiyú, ribbon fish
三文鱼, sānwényú, salmon,

The Whole Animal

Beef and lamb often come in very thin slices. It's best to dunk them in the soup with chopsticks and hold them in the broth until they are done, otherwise the meat will shrivel into overcooked rags. I'm not a specialist on the characteristics of each of a cow's four stomachs, but the 'bumpy' and 'strips' tripe are both delicious. The p**ing meatballs have broth inside that squirts out when you bite into them, and are great. Quail eggs are a must-order. The goose and duck tripe develop a great chewiness.

羊肉(卷), yángròu(juăn), lamb (rolls)
黄喉, huánghóu, throat of a pig (very, very popular)
(肥)牛肉, (féi) niúròu,(fatty) beef
牛杂, niúzá, assorted beef entrails
毛肚, máodù,'bumpy' tripe,
千层肚, qiāncéngdŭ, tripe with strips
脑花, năohuā, pig brains,
香菜丸子, xiāngcàiwánzĭ, cilantro meatballs
香菜圆子, xiāngcàiyuánzĭ, cilantro meatballs
新鲜牛丸, xīnxiān niúwán, fresh beef meatballs
脆皮肠, cuìpícháng, sausage
鹌鹑蛋, ānchún dàn, quail eggs
撒尿牛丸, sānìniúwán, p**ing meatballs
牛舌, niúshé, beef tongue
鸭脚, yājiăo, duck feet
鹅肠, écháng, goose tripe
鸭肠, yācháng, duck tripe
鸡片, jīpiān, sliced chicken
鸭血, yāxiĕ, duck blood cubes
鸭舌, yāshé, duck tongue
火腿, huŏtuĭ, ham (usually spam)
午餐肉, wŭcānròu, luncheon meat
肥肠, féicháng, pork tripe
鹅肝, égān, goose liver
(无骨) 风爪, (wúgŭ) fēngzhuă, (boneless) chicken feet


Vegetables' varied colours and textures provide a great contrast between ingredients. This section needs the most updating; there are usually thirty to fifty items in the vegetable section. Looking forward to more field research.

藕片, ŏupiān, sliced lotus root
土豆片, tŭdòupiān, sliced potato
花菜, huācài, cauliflower
豆芽, dòuyá, beansprouts
山药, shānyào, mountain yam
百菜, băicài, cabbage
海带, hăidài, seaweed strips
蕃茄, fānqié, tomato
海白菜, hăibáicài, seaweed plant
黄金菇, huángjīn gū, yellow mushrooms
茶树菇, cháshùgū, tea tree mushrooms
金针菇, jīnzhēngū, enoki mushrooms
香菇, xiānggū, shiitake mushrooms
鸡腿菇, jītuĭgū, chicken leg mushrooms
木耳, mùĕr, wood ear mushroom
平菇, pínggū, oyster mushrooms
老人头菌, lăoréntóujùn, old person's head mushroom
冬瓜, dōngguā, winter melon,
窝笋(头), wōsŭn (tóu), celtuce
黄花, huánghuā、lily buds (usually dried)
黄瓜, huángguā, cucumber
生菜, shēngcài, green leaf lettuce
萝卜, luóbo, radish
香芋, xiāngyù, taro,
竹笋, zhúsŭn, bamboo shoots


Tofu skin is a must order. It is great to chew and soaks up the flavour of the hot pot broth fantastically. The frozen tofu has a grainy texture that helps it absorb more hot pot flavour.

豆腐干, dòufugān, dried tofu,
豆腐皮, dòufupí, tofu 'skin'
冻豆腐, dòng dòufu, frozen tofu


Konnyaku is a diet food, pure fibre, with a texture like finger jello. Niangao gets wonderfully chewy. Potato starch noodles go from white to transparent in the soup, and the dark brown brake root noodles become like jelly. Scooping slippery noodles out of hot pot soup is a tough feat for the chopstick challenged, but is my favourite part. At this point you can also take some soup from the mild side into your bowl and drink. It's delicious.

魔芋, móyù, konnyaku
土豆粉, tŭdòufĕn, potato starch noodles,
粉丝, fĕnsī, bean thread noodles
年糕, niángāo, rice cake
苕粉, sháofĕn, sweet potato (红苕) noodles
厥根粉, juégēnfĕn, brake root noodles

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fried Rice and Tiger Skins

Was back in Huiyuan Noodles today but didn't feel like eating noodles (The tomato meatball noodles were just OK when I tried them, by the way. I asked for salt.) I ordered a plate of black bean and fish fried rice (豆豉鱼 炒饭 dòuchĭyú chăofàn) and a plate of tiger skin peppers (虎皮青椒 hŭpí qīngjiāo) from the vegetable section.

Fried rice is often a good choice for people who can't handle spicy food. Yuxiang rousi fried rice, huiguorou fried rice, tomato egg fried rice, pork and green pepper fried rice, all are great and light on the lajiao (hot pepper). My black bean and fish fried rice was fine; lots of flavour without being too salty, though was a bit lacking in the stuff/rice ratio. The bean sprout pao cai on the side was unusual and very good.

'Tiger skin' green peppers have been cooked til their skins blister; it's a dish that sometimes comes very mild and sometimes incendiarily hot depending on what kind of green peppers are used. Since the weather is hot and tiger skin peppers are a common cold dish, I half expected to get cold ones but these had been freshly cooked. The plate had a mix of hot and mild green peppers, with a little soy sauce and garlic underneath. Simple and great.

The family style service here is very welcoming; there is an older woman who will wonder what's wrong if you order only a little food and sometimes a completely adorable boy of about ten who runs orders and can answer questions about the menu and ingredients. Today I asked for the rest of my rice to be wrapped up and they packed it into a takeout bowl with a spoon and a fresh helping of pao cai before putting it into a bag. Because the standard 'dabao' at places like this is to pour your leftovers into a plastic bag that is then loosely knotted, I was impressed.

米老鼠 - Mickey Mouse

This is Y2.5 worth of the crispy 'Taiwan style' pumpkin and vegetable fritters that are sold at many bakeries. They are very good, but like most crispy deep fried snacks here the deliciousness half-life is about ten minutes so if you have not actually seen the tray of freshly prepared product set out it's best to pass them by. (KFC is not an exception.)

The great thing about street food is that you can order stuff just by pointing, so I never knew what these were called. Since I wanted to post about them today I asked the boss. She told me very slowly and clearly - "米老鼠" mĭlăoshŭ. "You mean the small animal 老鼠.....and the 米 that means rice?" I asked, mystified. She smilingly confirmed the words - 'rice mouse'. The only thing this brought to mind was a famous Chinese love song creepily entitled 'As the Mouse Loves the Rice', but on getting home and web-searching the term, I found that mĭlăoshŭ is the Chinese name for Mickey Mouse. Still can't see a connection between the snack and its name, so it's a good example of how life in China is confusing if you don't know the language, but can be even more confusing when you do know a little. Have a fritter.

Monday, April 20, 2009

黄龙溪 - Huanglongxi

Huanglongxi is a town about an hour's bus ride outside Chengdu. I'd wanted to visit for a long time, so hopped on the bus from Xinnanmen station yesterday (Y7). The town's main claim to fame is well preserved Qing dynasty buildings; one section of town is in permanent use by television stations and filmmakers.

Very close to the bus station is a market street. I saw, for the first time in China, the musky little brown fruits that they call 'chikoo' in India - anyone know the English name? One snack many vendors sold were these crispy fried cakes made from peas (豌豆饼) and peanuts. You can get them in Chengdu too but these are a slightly different style, with a much lighter batter. Tasted OK.

There must be lots of mulberries (桑果) growing in the area, because vendors were selling them for only two yuan/pound. The local specialty food that every tourist shop seemed to be selling was salty preserved beans (豆豉) wrapped in bamboo leaves . They were only 5 jiao per packet so I picked one up for experimenting. 'Dousi' packets:

Other featured local products included two kinds of sesame candy: zhimagao 芝麻糕 - sesame that had been sweetened, ground to powder, and pressed into layers; and 'leather candy' 牛皮糖 - flat gummy strips with white and black sesame pressed into it. I asked if the 'leather' was real skin, which got me a 'silly foreigner' look. But I have been surprised before.

Scenes of rural life passed on my way to the Chen Family Water Mill. The driver of my three wheel cab (三抡车) was local so I quizzed her about the local crops. I grew up on a farm but am embarrassingly unable to identify crops from the road in China; thought the vines of green beans (四季豆) were grapes (葡萄). The land usage was pretty efficient; the rape (油菜) was almost mature and when it is harvested it is replaced by another crop. Grain drying:

The rural areas of Sichuan have thousands of guest farms, or nongjiale (农家乐) - places to eat, sleep, and relax. They are especially concentrated around tourist towns like Huanglongxi. The food at these places is usually country style and advertised as organic. The Chen Family Water Mill had several 'shengtaiyuan' (生态园, ecological?) nongjiale within walking distance. I looked at a menu at one place my driver brought me out of curiosity, though I wasn't ready for lunch at that point. They had lots of 点杀 dishes, where you could order a live chicken, rabbit, or duck to be slaughtered and prepared on the spot.

A couple of hours later, at the end of the Y5 boat ride to Dafo Temple (大佛寺) I walked up the steps and saw a tea house/restaurant called Hongyuan Inn (红源酒店) where quite a few people were eating, and which had a great smell coming from the kitchen. Good signs both, so I sat down and asked for a recommendation, which was some kind of wild fish at the top of their specials page. This turned out to be small bony catfish in one of the zillion kinds of hot and numbing (麻辣) oily red broth. Little fish I always find confusing to eat - I never know what parts are edible, and ended up crunching the heads whole while picking the rest of the meat off the bones. The effort didn't really pay off in deliciousness though. I also got a plate of water spinach (空心菜), which was amazing. They had wild mountain vegetables to try as well but at that point I didn't feel very adventurous. Lunch was thus mostly an expensive strike out, but I would eat there again, just order differently. Fish:

The tea house crowd was mainly older local people, many either on their way to the temple or coming back from it. While I was waiting for the food a few sat down at the same table to drink tea and chat. I've been in China long enough that this didn't bother me, but as a new arrival I might have been put off by the spitting past my elbow or by the little bottom peeking through the split pants (开裆裤) worn by the baby. I half listened to the conversations and chatted with a grandmother a bit about the 8 month old, whose parents were working in Shenzhen. Back in town:

Huanglongxi is the kind of town that overflows during holidays like the coming May Labour Day. In addition to all the nongjiale there were many guest houses on the old streets advertising accommodation (住宿); may stay overnight next visit.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

崇州 荞面 - Chongzhou Buckwheat Noodles

Within a province the size and population of Sichuan it's not surprising that many regional cuisines have developed, and fortunately many of these regional specialties can be tasted in the capital. Chongzhou gives us bedspread noodles, which is one of my favourite things to eat, as well as buckwheat noodles.

This noodle shop across from the Fortune Center is always overflowing at mealtimes and never really empties, even in the afternoons when the staff of most places are napping. They have regular wheat noodles and rice noodles on the menu, but the vast majority of customers ask for their made-to-order buckwheat or bedspread noodles. I think they don't pull the bedspread noodles smooth enough, but love the buckwheat noodles.

This is an order of yuanyang noodles (鸳鸯荞面), which means a mix of buckwheat and rice noodles. On top is beef mixed with its usual partner, stewed dried bamboo shoot (竹笋).

Location: Across street from Fortune Centre KFC 崇州荞面 铺盖面 财富中心肯德基对面

杂酱面 - Scrap Sauce Noodles at Grandma Jin's

These are great - 红汤杂酱面 at Grandma Jin's. They have both hong tang (红汤, spicy) and qing tang (清汤, non-spicy) versions of scrap sauce noodles here. I ordered these in the late afternoon when the two kitchen workers were in the middle of a game of checkers. They not only good-humouredly paused the game, but washed their hands before preparing my order.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

武大郎烧饼 - Wu Da Lang Flatbread

This is a newly opened takeout place on Xiaojiahe street. Its single product is a kind of flatbread which is very new to me and as far as I can figure out is more common in Hubei than Sichuan. The product is touted, strangely, as a Tujia specialty: Chinese-style pizza. (Tujia is one of the many ethnic minorities in China)

Curiosity finally led me to the front of the line a couple of days ago and I asked for a beef 'bing'. You get a pretty thick flatbread which has been spread with a meat paste and baked, and then topped with shredded cucumbers and green onions. Hot pepper is optional. They cost Y3 each, which I think is too much, and the cooked meat paste on top seemed 'industrial', and pretty unappetizing. The place is very popular though, and often has a lineup which means quick turnover and usually fresh product.

Location: Across Xiaojiahe street from Grandma Jin's.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

清真 回香牛肉 - Qingzhen Hui Xiang Beef

Tried to eat at a favourite homestyle Sichuan place on Xiaojiahe street today, only to find it closed. No matter, I had been wanting to try a Muslim style beef place across the street. The place is right next door to Grandma Jin's.

My guest hadn't been there before either so we asked the boss what to order. We ended up with a dish of fanqie niu liu (蕃茄牛柳, tomato and tender beef) and a plate of sijidou (四季豆、 green beans) and nanguatang (南瓜汤, pumpkin soup). The soup wasn't on the menu but our server suggested it, and it was good if pretty rough and simple - boiled chunks of soft pumpkin in its own broth.

The niuliu (牛柳, tender beef) dishes here are a specialty. The slices of beef were a little chewy but very good, and I thought our tomato beef dish contained a lot of meat for a serving that only cost Y15. The tomato sauce had a little garlic and ginger, and tasted great. Definitely worth repeat visits.

Address: 清真回香牛肉 肖家河街 12号

Thursday, April 9, 2009

豆汤饭 - Rice and Pea Soup

Lately I've been eating quite a bit of 豆汤饭 (doutang fan), which is a soupy mix of rice and yellow peas cooked til both rice and peas are falling apart, with whatever stir-ins you order. You can get vegetable versions, or ask for cooked chicken, beef, tripe, or other goodies. It tastes as bland as it looks but feels very nourishing and warming on cool drizzly days like we're having this week and is a very welcome break from overly spicy, oily, salty, msg-laden dishes.

This is the 鸡丝豆汤饭 (chicken shreds in rice and pea soup) at Grandma Jin's. It's an enormous piping hot bowl for Y7. They don't have smaller sizes, unfortunately. I also got a side of cucumbers (凉拌黄瓜). Way too much food for one person.

This is a Y4 bowl of 牛肉豆汤饭 (beef rice and pea soup) from a scabby place on Shuangnan. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it's not really good enough to tell others about. Note that if you get served lukewarm soup, it is totally OK for food safety's sake to ask them to heat it up (加热).

Special at Zoe's: American Chop Suey

This was the special at Zoe's Barbecue on RenMin South Rd yesterday. The most interesting part of the sign was the translation: 美式通心粉, or American 'tongxinfen'. 通心粉, as far as I can tell, refers to any Italian short shaped or pierced pasta, like macaroni, rotini, penne, or shells. At the time I had not the Y28 worth of curiosity/hunger to find out firsthand, but I don't think American Chinese food is represented any more faithfully than any other Western food here. Zoe's is billed as an American Southern style barbecue restaurant, but really has basic diner food in a pretty upscale setting. Only the very low end of the menu is in the Y20-30 range.

Address: 人民南路四段30号附12号(威斯顿联邦大厦对面)

This area of Renmin South Road has a cluster of non-Chinese restaurants with English menus: The Shamrock, Grandma's Kitchen, Namaste, and Firenze. The Bookworm is right around the corner too.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tazishan Park Barbecue

Tazishan Park is in the east of the city, and the only place that I know of within Chengdu where you can take your own food to barbecue. I've come here for barbecue a few times and have always had a great time even though it is smoky, crowded, and lacking in sink facilities. On this holiday Monday my friends and I arrived before ten to get a pit. It was a good thing we did because the place quickly filled up.

Outside the gate of the main barbecue area there is a window where you rent the grilling equipment of your choice - knives, pans, tongs, grills, rabbit racks, dishes, you name it. The Y100 item near the top is an electric lamb rack.

Charcoal is Y10 a bag inside. You can buy food to grill as well as seasoning - there's no such thing as barbecue sauce, but bags of hot pepper, Sichuan pepper, salt, cumin, and msg mixes. Most people bring their own food to grill though and I've always liked taking strolls around to spy on what they are cooking. Last time there were some Japanese students barbecuing 'pizza pockets' full of vegetables and mayonnaise. Today, one family of nine stood around a flameless pit making jiaozi dumplings.

One highlight of our spread was thick strips of pork belly, skin firmly attached, which had been packed in salt and Sichuan peppercorns. Beautiful, and numbing without being hot. Other friends grilled eggplants whole and then mixed the tender flesh with a Japanese ginger and soy dressing. We had the zucchini and mushrooms I'd bought at the market on skewers. There were chicken and duck wings, and some lean pork marinated in wine, sugar, and soy. Lettuce, onions, potatoes, and lotus root rounded out the vegetables.

A couple of fire experts in our group kept the heat and charcoal going and I got to sit by the grill with a set of tongs while the conversation floated around me. Perfect way to spend a long weekend Monday.

Eat Fatty Beef Every Day

Haven't eaten here, but like the sign outside:

Eat fatty beef every day || Women more beautiful || Men more healthy and strong

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

金婆婆手掌面 - Grandma Jin's Handmade Noodles

Xiaojiahe area is a pretty good place find yourself hungry. Grandma Jin's is a spot I've always wanted to try but hadn't gotten around to because of all the other great barbecue and homestyle food in the area. I finally walked in the other day; it's a little rundown but they keep the place very clean. I wanted something green so ordered a Y5 plate of 凉拌折耳根 (cool mixed zhi'er gen). I haven't found an English name for zhi'er gen; it's green, flat leaves with a minty taste. ('Vietnamese fish mint' keeps turning up, but the plant does not taste fishy to me.) It came tossed with vinegar and a little oil, onion, and garlic. That day they also had cucumber, tofu, and wood ear available for the liang ban (cool mixed) treatment.

The handmade noodles ended up being almost exactly like bedspread noodles, and were really, really good. These are beef flavoured. Need to sample the 豆汤饭 (bean soup with rice) next time.

Address: 金婆婆手掌面 武侯区肖家河街8号

Misc. Chicken Fried Noodles - 鸡杂炒面

If you follow KeHua North Road south, just across the second ring sits a large, high class shopping mall called the Brilliance Tianfu Centre 白联天府. (Tell cab drivers: Beilian Tianfu) There is lots to eat here: a couple of very high end Chinese restaurants including one that specializes in mushrooms, a KFC, an Ajisen (oft pirated, Hong Kong - based ramen chain), 'Thai' barbecue, one of the few Subway franchises in town, and a pretty Taiwan style cafe called Bellagio. It's all very expensive though, and if you happen to work nearby and just need a quick lunch for a few yuan you head to the third floor by the grocery store where there is a dingy food court crowded with mall workers.

The character 杂 (za2) means miscellaneous, assorted, or scraps, and is a menu character I learned first to fear, then love. The bad - once I thought I was ordering beef and tendon soup in Hong Kong and ordered 牛杂 (beef entrails) noodles. I'm still not sure what each of the parts were, but they were badly cleaned/cooked and some of the most depressing things I've ever been served. And without even one shred of tendon.

Chinese people love eating 杂, though. There is one street in Chengdu lined with 牛杂 (beef entrails) hot pot places. 杂酱面、 scrap sauce noodles, with ground meat or possibly other animal parts cooked into a thick sauce, are usually delicious. 鸡杂 refers to a very spicy mixture of chicken parts - liver, gizzard, heart, intestines, chunks of neck. Many places that serve quick lunches offer 鸡杂 chao shou, 鸡杂 fried rice, or 鸡杂 noodles.

玉姐面 (Sister Jade Noodles) is the first stall on the third floor food court of Beilian Tianfu. This place is a little unusual since all their noodles are the thick, chewy, knife cut style that get rough at the edges. My 鸡杂炒面 (misc. chicken fried noodles):

I've had these before and loved them, but this time they were too salty and oily and some of the chicken parts were cooked to rubber. Should have sprung for Subway.