We’ve spent a lot of time in Hong Kong, particularly when we lived in Asia. I love Hong Kong for food, but when it comes to Chinese food, Sichuan province is king. The best place for travelers to China to visit for this famous cuisine is Chengdu. This Chengdu food guide shares our top tips on what to eat in Chengdu China.
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Our Experience Traveling In China
When we left China after our first trip in 2009, I was in no rush to return. China is hard. Even traveling in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, or to tourist destinations like Xi’an was a challenge.
We had a hard time finding English menus and English speakers. We got scammed. I swore I would not return to China for quite some time. The only exception: traveling to Chengdu to eat Sichuan cuisine.
Chengdu dishes are unlike most of the Chinese food eaten in the US or even the UK. Most of the Chinese food eaten outside of China is Americanized or localized. The food in Chengdu is far from these watered-down versions.
Chengdu dishes are more flavorful and are definitely spicier. For true food travelers, the restaurants in Chengdu China don’t offer tourist versions of their dishes. It’s why it’s one of the best places for food travelers.
Chengdu Food Blog – What to Eat in Chengdu China
In this Chengdu Food Blog, we will provide some background on Szechuan cuisine and Chengdu cuisine. We also will share some tips on where and what to eat when traveling in Chengdu. Most of all, I want to encourage you to visit Chengdu, easily our favorite Chinese city.
What to Eat in Chengdu
I loved spicy Sichuan food. When we lived in Chicago, one of our favorite restaurants was a Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. That meant spicy food. So spicy my lips would still be tingling 30 minutes after leaving.
We always ordered Sichuan chicken, double-fried with loads of Sichuan style chili peppers. I loved it. At the time I don’t think I knew the connection between Sichuan and Chengdu.
I knew Chengdu only as the land of the famous Chengdu panda bear. And, I always wanted to visit Chengdu specifically for the pandas. But, honestly, I had no idea where Chengdu was, or that it was at the epicenter of Sichuan province. Home to Chengdu spicy food and lip numbing dishes.
I knew I wanted to travel to Sichuan. And after we figured out that Chengdu was, in fact, in Sichuan, we were set. I just needed to research Chengdu cuisine and what to eat.
What is Sichuan Pepper?
Sichuan peppers have to be the most famous food in Chengdu, but they are also misunderstood. Sichuan cuisine has a characteristic red color and is often loaded with dried chilis.
Generally, it is easy to assume these dried chili peppers are Sichuan peppers. But, they are really just dried chilis. Although they are added to the oil to cook the dishes, they don’t generally get eaten.
Sichuan peppers, on the other hand, are more like a dried berry, from a particular type of ash tree. They are closer to black peppercorns than they are chili peppers. It is this ingredient that causes the lip-numbing that comes after a few bites of Sichuan food.
Am I crazy for actually wanting to eat at a Sichuan Chengdu restaurant specifically to experience the tingle on the lips?
There is more to Sichuan cooking than heat and numbness, though. Similar to other Asian cuisines, Sichuan dishes attempt to balance the hot with sweet and salty flavors, and in some cases flowery flavors.
The dishes are also generally loaded with garlic, ginger, and star anise. Most notably the Sichuan sauce, or chili, oil is a multi-layered condiment with all of these ingredients.
Track Down These Chengdu Foods! Chengdu’s Most Famous Dishes
Now that we’ve shared some background on Sichuan and Chengdu cuisine, below is our list of the top Chengdu dishes you must eat when traveling in Chengdu. Because it’s not every day that a food traveler finds themselves in Chengdu China, it’s important to plan ahead, and know exactly what to eat!
Stir-Fried Sichuan Chicken and Sichuan Peppers – Lazi Ji
When we lived in Chicago, our go-to Chinese restaurant was Lao Sze Chuan, a Sichuan style restaurant, across the street from the CVS in Chinatown. Each visit we ordered three dishes, one of which was a stir-fried chicken in Sichuan peppers.
Small bits of chicken, often still on the bone, are breaded and stir-fried until crispy. The chicken is tossed in a mountain of red and green chili peppers. Often the ratio of the dish is 80 percent peppers, 15% chicken, and the rest made up of sliced garlic and ginger, and Sichuan peppers.
On our first night in Chengdu, we ate this dish at Yue Hin, at Niccolo Hotel. I was in heaven. I was so excited to finally be eating one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, in Sichuan. Luckily, the plate was put next to me, so I could just rudely pick at the last little bits of spicy garlic and ginger towards the end of our meal.
I love anything dumpling. Really, my dumpling addiction goes hand in hand with my pasta addiction. Whether it is pasta in Italy or dim sum in Hong Kong, I’m addicted. Did I say addicted too many times?
When eating in Chengdu, all I wanted to do was find spicy Sichuan dumplings. For me, it was on the top of my must eat in Chengdu list! On Jin Li walking street (also considered a Chengdu food street), one of the tourist spots in Chengdu, I found some tender pork dumplings, drenched in a fiery red Sichuan sauce. One of my favorites.
Within seconds of my first bite, my lips were tingling and turning numb. We ate Sichuan dumplings a few more times, including in a pedestrian alley across from the Zara near Niccolo Hotel, and in a private restaurant during our Chengdu Lost Plate food tour. They are not hard to find, and a must-eat in Chengdu.
About Jin Li Walking Street. Jin Li is one of the best places to go for Sichuan street food and sort of like a Chengdu food market. And, if you are short on time, it should be on the top of a list of where to eat in Chengdu.
Wantons in Vinegar
Wantons in vinegar and the Sichuan dumplings go hand in hand. Generally, where there is one there is the other. The difference is that the wantons are served in a Sichuan sauce that is cut by tangy and acidic vinegar. There are still Sichuan peppers, and the dish is still spicy, but it has a little different flavor than the Sichuan dumplings.
Sichuan Noodles in Chili Sauce
Also on Jin Li Street, these were cold rice noodles, layered in a spicy chili sauce. When reading this description it may seem very similar to the description of the Sichuan dumplings. But, because the noodles were cold, they were very refreshing. And, very slippery. How I managed not to drop one in my open purse on my lap is still something I wonder.
Dan Dan Noodles
Dan dan noodles are probably some of the most well-known Chengdu dishes and can commonly be found on Chinese menus in cities like London and the UK. The noodles are topped with ground pork and a spicy sauce with peanut flavor. They can be topped with crushed peanuts or soybeans. Try the dan dan noodles at Chunyangguan Chengdu.
Twice Cooked Pork Noodles
A classic Sichuan dish, Twice Cooked Pork Noodles combines two of our favorite things; pork and noodles. Cooked in a fermented blackbean paste, the dish is spicy, fatty, and highly addictive. The dish comes with a generous serving of spicy chili oil just in case you want to melt off your taste buds.
Chengdu Hot Pot
Hotpot is probably one of the most quintessential Sichuan eating experiences. It’s not hard to find a hot pot in Chengdu. In fact, it might be more difficult to find a restaurant that DOESN’T serve Sichuan hot pot. It seems almost every Chengdu restaurant will offer hot pot.
There are several ways to eat hot pot in Chengdu. The very traditional way is to have a giant vat of boiling hot broth in the middle of the table. People place different proteins and vegetables inside to cook. Hotpot is, essentially, Chinese fondue. It can get messy.
We ate a more classy version of hot pot at Sit By Me, at the IFS Mall. Although we’ve had a traditional hot pot before, we were traveling with some hot pot virgins, one of whom is a pescatarian. So this was a happy compromise because we each received our own individual hot pot, and could choose how hot we wanted the sauce.
Similar to shabu shabu, a conveyor belt of ingredients moved swiftly by. We could choose an unlimited amount of meats, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, and even noodles. After cooking the items in the piping hot broth, we dunked the cooked food into different kinds of sauces, from peanut sauce to sesame sauce, to sauce mixed with garlic and sesame seeds, and of course, more Sichuan pepper.
Sweet Water Noodles
Known in China as tian shui mian, these noodles more thick than most noodles and with a coarse or rough texture. No surprise that the noodles are served with a traditional Sichuan chili oil. Sugar is added to the noodles before serving. This helps a little with the spice from the chili oil.
Double-Cooked Pork Belly – Huigou Rou
Double-cooked pork belly is one of the less spicy of the dishes I recommend eating in Chengdu. It consists of a simmered pork belly, which is then sliced thin and stir-fried. Once crispy, it is mixed in a sweet sauce with vegetables (normally leeks) and just a hint of chili. Yes, as much as it is not overly spicy, there’s still chili in it.
When researching places to eat in Chengdu, I came across a photo of some adorable panda dumplings. And, who can resist eating panda when visiting Chengdu . . . so long as it is a panda dumpling and not an actual panda.
I had no more description of the panda dumpling, or where to find it. I was led by a simple picture. But, I managed to track them down on Jin Li street. We ordered two, having no idea what they were filled with.
I imagined them to be pork-filled, just by default. Instead, they were sweet. The panda skin tasted similar to the outer edge of a mochi ball but filled with fluffy sweet cream. Is this the best food in Chengdu? Of all the dishes I recommend to eat in Chengdu, this one is just for the novelty of biting into a creamy, and adorable, panda dumpling.
Pineapple Sticky Rice
Another dish to find on Jin Li street, even if it is a little hard to eat as Chengdu street food. A half pineapple is filled with sweet sticky rice, bits of pineapple, and goji berries. The pineapple sticky rice is placed on a small plate and served with two petite plastic spoons.
I saw people walking all over Jin Li with a heavy heap of pineapple sticky rice in one hand while trying to find a place to sit. The dish is very sweet, and even though I don’t really have a sweet tooth it was refreshing on a hot day, and unlike anything I’ve eaten before.
Drink Tea in Chengdu
Although I still enjoyed a nice cafe latte each morning at breakfast, tea is really king in Chengdu. We had two amazing tea drinking experiences, each of which was entirely different. First, we had high afternoon tea at Niccolo Hotel. I enjoyed green tea, and Eric a white tea. It was a lovely, very British experience in the middle of Chengdu, complete with scones and cream.
For a more traditional option, we spent a morning at People’s Park, in one of the Chengdu tea houses. The tea house attendant arrived with a tiny plastic menu, which included English translations. For $2-3 a pot, it was a lovely way to spend a morning experiencing tea house life in Chengdu.
Even if you don’t like tea. People’s Park is one of the top Chengdu attractions. It’s worth a visit. If looking for a particular tea to drink in Chengdu, try the Zhu Ye Qing, or Bamboo Leaf Green. It is locally grown and beautiful to see. The tea leaves are bright and slender, and stand up on end in the water. Beautiful.
Sichuan French Fries
Yes, french fries. We had these spicy fries for the first time at Niccolo Kitchen. Once again, I was happy to have a bowl of them in front of me to snack on throughout our meal. At Niccolo Kitchen they served simple fries dusted with spicy peppers. It was a perfect spicy food in Chengdu.
But, we also ate some crinkle-cut french fries, loaded with chilis and Sichuan chili peppers during our Lost Plate Chengdu food tour. Although I felt, as an American, that they were a little too undercooked for my taste, the toppings were worth dealing with the al dente nature of the potatoes. I still appreciated our Chengdu food guide showing us this version of Chengdu cuisine.
What Else I Wanted to Eat in Chengdu
It’s amazing how quickly 5 days flew by. There were a few other dishes that I would recommend to eat in Chengdu, which we missed out on.
First, I love string beans with Sichuan peppers. Sometimes topped with ground pork, it’s one of our must-eat dishes in Hong Kong.
Second, ma po tofu (or mapo doufu), a super-soft version of tofu covered in Sichuan chili sauce and ground pork. I usually do not order this dish because Eric won’t eat tofu. But, I wanted to try it in Chengdu, and never managed to make it happen.
Roasted Rabbit Head
The last dish I wanted to eat in Chengdu: roasted rabbit head. Yes, Sichuan rabbit head. We saw two styles of roasted rabbit head at Jin Li market. They slathered the second version we saw in peppers and seasonings.
But, we were told we would be eating rabbit head during our Chengdu food tour, so we held out. We figured it would be safer to eat with a local who could recommend a great place. But, by the time we got to the market that night for rabbit head, they were sold out. All of this means that we have to return to Sichuan to eat even more Chengdu food.
FAQs About Chengdu Food & Travel in Chengdu
Chengdu weather varies over the year. It can be hot in the summer and cold in the winter. But, chances are it will be overcast. It is China after all.
Definitely take a food tour in Chengdu or go see the pandas. There are a variety of options for panda viewing depending on how much time you have and what your budget is.