Chengdu’s streets have seen a great transformation over the years. Once the capital of Shu State during the Three Kingdom period, the city has had a rich and colourful history. Food culture has been particularly important, in private homes, high-end establishments, and crowded streets. Street snacks in particular, have made a name for themselves around the world, and are my earliest encounter with truly mind-blowing flavour.
Not your average street fare, Chengdu’s snacks are diverse in selection and sophisticated in preparation, only sourcing the best ingredients, using intricate techniques passed down for generations. Once ubiquitous as ‘fly restaurants’ or street carts, they are becoming harder and harder to find due to recent government efforts to ‘clean’ city streets.
I’ve written previously about the impending death of food culture in Chengdu, and as if in attempt to preserve an inkling of it- or to commercialize it anyhow, the city has set up government sanctioned historical and cultural districts where visitors can still get a taste of old Chengdu living. Think the bizarre Wangfujing food street in Beijing, or Xintiandi developments in Shanghai. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they have become the easiest ways to find Chengdu’s copious selection of street snacks, albeit not the most authentic (that is saved for a future post). Here, I will outline the three top sites for a taste of Chengdu food and life, as well as 20 of the most important xiaochi ‘little eats’ to recognize and try. Yes, these places can also be described as ‘gentrified’ and ‘tourist traps’, and I am the first to label them thus, but there are some significant historical and cultural assets amongst them as well, and all three are musts for a first time visitor to Chengdu.
锦里 JINLI STREET First up is Jinli, a restored ancient lane located near Wuhou temple. Once known as the “First Street of the Shu Kingdom”, it was a prosperous and busy commercial street dating back to the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It was restored to its ‘former state’, with the addition of an imposing Starbucks and a string of souvenir stalls, and opened to the public in 2004. Today, it is one of my least favorite places to visit. As great as some of these pictures might look, the food on offer at the famed “小吃一条街” (Snack Street), is inauthentic, and will generally impress with its variety and vibrance, but ultimately disappoint where it matters most- on taste.
Nevertheless, you will no doubt visit Wuhou Temple, the greatest Three Kingdom (220-280) relic museum, and Jingli’s convenient location adjacent warrants a stop. For a visitor with little time to spare, it is also the most convenient place to sample a broad variety of all Chengdu’s glory snacks, all within one small lane.
文殊院 WENSHU MONASTERY
Next up is Wenshu Yuan, the most famous Buddhist temple in Chengdu, and my personal favourite for a glimpse of Chengdu culture and cuisine. Built in the Tang Dynasty ~300 years ago, Wenshu is famous for its cultural relics, with hundreds of paintings and calligraphy exhibited in its halls. Admission is only 5RMB, definitely go see that.
But the BEST part of Wenshu Monastery, is the spectacular food you can find around it. Be forewarned however, that it is just as easy to stumble onto bad food. Ancient cobbled streets surrounding the temple have been restored into a maze of commercial developments, all trying very hard to maintain authenticity- I’ll give ‘em that. But while it is easy to get enticed by the set menus at 龙抄手 Long Chao Shou, a popular chain of what is essentially bad snack ‘fast food’, you must STAY AWAY. But look just to your right, and you will witness the best cangyingguan this area has to offer, with all the xiaochi you can eat for the equivalent of a few coins in your pocket. For this restaurant- my Chengdu secret- check back for a later post.
三大炮 SAN DA PAO in action. Essentially translating to ‘Three Big (Gun) Shots”, this snack is prepared with balls of glutinous rice flour. The master throws them high into the sky with flair, and everyone watches with bated breath as the balls dramatically make their way back down, consecutively bouncing off a wooden cart coated in soybean powder, and in the process making three loud and distinct sounds to which it owes its namesake. With deft hands, an assistant scoops up the rice balls and pour a warm red sugar glaze on top, and hands it to an eager customer. This is not the most delicious snack, but is worth it for the presentation alone.
糖油果子 TANG YOU GUO ZI translates to “sweet and oily fruit” (no fruit involved). This is a variation of the San Da Pao above, usually served four or five on a bamboo skewer, these glutinous rice balls are coated in a shiny red sugar glaze and sprinkled with white sesame seeds. The difference between these and the above is that they are masterfully deep-fried, the best ones indicated by a crunchy outer shell, chewy skin, and completely hollow center.
波丝糖 BO SI TANG, translates to ‘silk wave candy’, and looks just like its name. Similar to the well-known Dragon Beard candy, maltose syrup is sprinkled with white sesame seeds and stretched by a candyman in between two toothpicks until it becomes fine and silken, then twisted into a roll held together by soybean powder. To many who grew up in Chengdu, this was the quintessential after school snack, and the taste of nostalgia.
宽窄巷子 KUAN ZHAI XIANG ZI
Of all the destinations, this is the most high-end and glam rendition, attracting expats, hip youngsters, and the nouveau riche. Translating to “Wide and Narrow Lane”, this area consists of three parallell streets with traditional Siheyuan (courtyard houses), Wide, Narrow, and Jing Lanes. It’s the last remaining area in Chengdu with rich architectural features of the Qing Dynasty ~1644-1911 still in tact, although the over-restorations make it seem less so. Together, these streets attempt to represent the Chengdu lifestyle- leisurely, slow, but modern.
Luxurious teahouses, private dining establishments, western fusion restaurants, Italian gelato shops and pricey cafes litter the streets. It makes for a good stroll, and if you have the dough, an afternoon spent in a teahouse is lovely. There is not much in the way of traditional street snacks, but if your timing is right, there are sometimes elaborate snack stalls set up during major holidays like Chinese New Years. As a side note this area is also frequented buy professional ear pickers. I have never personally mustered the courage to pay one of these men to clean and massage my ear canals, but my relatives inform me it is most delightful and relaxing. Have any readers experienced this Please share!
CHENGDU SNACK A-Z
I don’t have all my own photos of these snacks, so will attempt to Google Image them as I go.
1. 担担面 DAN DAN MIAN ”Dandan Noodles” Perhaps the most famous Sichuan snack, these noodles originate in 1841 from street peddlers who sold them hanging from their shoulders in ‘danzi’, or bamboo carriers. In days long gone, this delicacy was ubiquitous on the streets of Chengdu, famous for the noodle’s thin texture and thick, spicy chili sauce mixed in.
2. 龙抄手 LONG CHAO SHOU ”Dragon wontons” Chao shou is the unique name native Sichuanese give to wontons. These are characterized by their thin, delicate wrappers and juicy pork filling swimming in a fresh white broth. Its sister 红油抄手 HONG YOU CHAO SHOU ”Red oil wontons” is simply dressed up in a fiery red chili sauce instead.
3. 甜水面 TIAN SHUI MIAN ”Sweet water noodles” Perhaps my favourite, depending on what else I’m eating that day, these are the perfect noodles. As the name indicates, a strong flavour that comes through is sugar, but paired with just the perfect amount of mouth puckering vinegar and spicy chili sauce. The real art is in the noodles, they must be hand made, masterfully rolled up and chopped into one centimeter wide rectangular pieces. This is one noodle dish worth flying to Chengdu for. I will be writing about the BEST place to get them, in a post to follow.
4. 叶儿粑 YE ER BA ”Leaf-wrapped cake” Another glutinous rice number, this snack is about three centimeters long and comes in mostly two colours, white and green, the latter coloured by banana leaves. These conceal several combinations of fillings, ground pork with a mixture of ground black pepper and Sichuan peppercorns, red bean paste, and nuts mixed with red sugar. These are wrapped in banana or lotus leaves and steamed until fragrant and firm.
5. 醪糟粉子 LAO ZHAO FENZI ”Fermented glutinous rice flour soup” This is a dish I could never wrap my head around until recently. Growing up, a large jar of this was always in my refrigerator, and each time I opened the door I would catch a whif of the pungent wine fermenting the little glutinous rice balls. I acquired the taste growing up, but still can’t take large amounts of it, despite how much my parents try to convince me of its health benefits. The Sichuanese like to add fried dough sticks, congee, and poached eggs into this soup and drink it in the mornings. Sometimes in the summer, this is served cold as a sweet, refreshing dessert.
6. 钟水饺 ZHONG SHUI JIAO ”Zhong dumplings” Another classic and eternal favourite of mine, these dumplings were invented in 1931 by a man with the name of Zhong Shaobai. The main difference between these and the famed Dongbei (North-eastern) dumplings are the use of pure pork for the filling, with no addition of vegetables. These are served piping hot with a generous scoop of red chili oil and have a hint of sweetness complementing the spice.
7. 赖汤圆 LAI TANG YUAN ”Lai glutinous rice balls” Originating in 1894 from a chef by the name of Lai Yuanxing, these were prepared, boiled, and served on the street in Chengdu. This tangyuan were the perfect consistency as they never broke in the water, letting out the filling or letting in the soup. The fillings vary from sweet black sesame, to rose, and even peanut. Fragrant but not overwhelmingly sweet, the melted filling perfectly complements the glutinous rice in your mouth.
8. 椒盐酥锅魁 JIAO YAN SU GUOTIE ”Crispy salt and pepper pancakes” As simple as you can get. Vegetable oil and flour mixes to form dough that crisps into a golden, layered pastry on the grill. A savoury pancake, it is often dotted with scallions, flavoured with salt and ground Sichuan peppercorns throughout, and sinfully melt-in-your mouth.
9. 豌豆饼 WAN DOU BIN ”Pea pancakes” Fresh peas are rolled in flour and salt, set in a special machine and deep fried to a golden crisp, emerging a patty with discernible peas throughout. The key to this is to consume while HOT. Once cooled, it hardens and pretty much becomes inedible.
10. 三合泥 SAN HE NI ”Three types of mud” I know, sounds appetizing right? That’s what I always thought too, and steered wayyyy clear of this dish. For people who truly appreciate Sichuan cuisine though, my father for one, this is the mecca of Sichuan street snacks, or what a local calls “元老 Statesman”. The name comes from its three ingredients- glutinous rice, sesame and walnuts. These are blended and boiled with water to a mud-like consistency, and then transfered to a large wok and slowly simmered with lard. When ready to scoop and serve, a sprinkle of sugar and crushed peanuts is added on top and voila, the perfect depression-era snack. But in all seriousness, you’ve gotta try this once.
11. 糖油果子 TANG YOU GUOZI “Sweet and oily fruit”- Please see above for text and photos
12. 五香油茶 WU XIANG YOUCHA “Five spiced oil tea” ?Ground up glutinous rice and various other rices are boiled together to create a consistency not unlike oat or sesame paste. Locals call this dish refreshing, as if ‘drinking tea’, but I usually prefer my tea without a mouthful of oil, and this paste is quite thick and viscous. Golden in colour, Sichuanese prefer a hint of chili, whereas the traditional tastes stronger of five spice. This is served with a sprinkling of deep-fried tiny dough sticks and?chopped scallions.
13. 蛋烘糕 DAN HONG GAO ”Baked egg cakes” Cute and shiny, these half-moon shaped egg pancakes are usually dipped in sugar or wrapped around pork floss and eaten by children outside every school gate.
14. 猪油发糕 ZHU YOU FA GAO ”Steamed lard cakes” These steamed cakes combine lard, white sugar and osthamanthus sugar. They’re soft, not too oily in your mouth, and quite sweet.
15. 肥肠粉 FEI CHANG FEN ”Yam noodles in intestine broth” Proper feichangfen are made with crystal yam noodles that don’t lose their consistency no matter how long you boil them. After soaking the dried noodles in water, they are immersed into a broth brimming with intestines. They are then transferred into a bowl with chili oil and vinegar and finished off with crushed peanuts and scallions. Very appetizing.
16. 川北凉粉 CHUAN BEI LIANG FEN ”Mung bean noodles” ?These mung bean noodles are thin, fresh and crystal clear. You can usually customize the seasoning when you request it, sour or spicy. This is served cold and is most refreshing on a summer’s day.
17. 玉米饼 YU MI BING ”Corn cakes” Sugar is added to corn flour and mixed to become a square-shaped pancake. Fried in oil until golden, it is crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and mostly sweet.
18. 小笼蒸牛肉 XIAO LONG ZHENG NIU ROU ”Bamboo casket steamed beef” ?This dish is prepared using a special, small bamboo casket measuring 8 centimeter wide and 4 centimeter tall. Sprigs of coriander are added to the beef after steaming to release its fragrance. The meat becomes extremely tender and tastes of spicy chilis and Sichuan peppercorn.
19. 三大炮 SAN DA PAO ”Three big gunshots” – Please see above for text and photos
20. 波丝糖 BO SI TANG, “Silk wave candy” ?- Please see above for text and photos
If you are looking for a specific place to try any of the above in its authentic form, leave me a note and I will locate the best option for you. I do hope you enjoy what Chengdu offers, and you will see why I am so proud to call it home.