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Chengdu, the city of spice and tea

Traditionally the main inland access city for travelers on route to mystical Tibet, or a cruise up the mighty Yangtze River, Chengdu (meaning "successful big city")has a history of nearly 4,000 years, leading many historians to regard it as the oldest established city in the world.

Once the starting point of the southern Silk Road, Chengdu boasts a string of global firsts. It was here where farmers made use of the first irrigation system (250BC) and shoppers used the first paper money (960-1126AD).

The spice

The spice comes from chilies. Fresh, dried, fried, stewed, powdered and pickled, these are the soul of Sichuan seasoning and should be the provincial emblem. Its more incendiary partner, the hua jiao or flower pepper (prickly ash), is the ingredient that brings about the feeling your mouth has been injected with local anesthetic. It is widely believed the humid climate in Chengdu encourages people to eat heavily spiced food and the potent pepper may help reduce internal dampness. I can't verify that theory, as my internal dampness became a volcanic eruption. But one must persevere in the name of adventure. With regional cuisine boasting 5,000 different dishes, you're not likely to get stuck for choice. Standards like ma po dou fu, pock-marked Mother Chen's beancurd topped with minced beef, floating in chili bean sauce, and gong bao ji ding, a spicy chicken and peanut dish known overseas as kung pao chicken, both originate in Chengdu. Likewise, zhong shui zhao, delicious crescent-shaped dumplings in a blistering sauce of chili and sesame oil. But perhaps of all the taste sensations Chengdu is home to, this is where the Hot was put in Pot. Hot Pot, a kind of supercharged fondue using wafer thin slices of lamb, beef and mutton here turns up the heat on its cousins in northern China. Fragrant oil and fistfuls of spice float dangerously in each bubbling pot, like an arsonist laying an ambush.

The real pleasure of having had the equivalent of hot coals rolled across your tongue comes afterwards, as you take a sip of Sichuan tea and feel the liquid magically sooth a mouth from hell. The tea also seems to extract the subtlety and intricately layered flavors of what many consider among the world's finest cuisine. A taste sensation of the most unexpected kind, it's a must for any gastronome. While there is a proliferation of low-budget eateries, the Veranda Anshun Bridge Restaurant beckons those looking for something different. Chengdu's only restaurant built on a river bridge and possibly the only one in China-is opulent dining deluxe and a must if you like being spoild by super efficient service that is choreographed with military precision and executed by waitresses who could easily double as models. The food isn't bad either. Marble columns of the Anshun Bridge so impressed Marco Polo on his Chinese travels that they are immortalized in his epic work The Travels Of Marco Polo. Night views along the Anshun River from the restaurant are dazzling but while the glass walls allow you to look out, it also gives every bridge crossing local the chance to gawk openly at diners trying to enjoy exotic dishes like sauteed bull frogs and chili-fried snails Sichuan style.

Tea House

Still feeding that irrigation system today, the Fu Nan River is an essential part of Chengdu's make-up. It was apparently thanks to the efforts of local school children that this river is today pollution free. A campaign lasting 10 years got the city's main artery flowing green and clean, drawing joggers and tea drinkers to its banks in scenes reminiscent of Europe.

The city's gleaming high rises and opulent department stores almost camouflage its most valuable asset the traditional teahouse. Wherever you turn here you'll find people sitting passing the time, sipping tea.

Locals have a saying, "When people have five hours to spare in Beijing, they use the time to look for a job. In Chengdu, you would use two hours to shop, cook and eat. The other three hours, you would spend in a teahouse." Tea seems to be embedded in the DNA of these folk, and if China has the best teahouses in the world, Chengdu has the best teahouses in China. Jasmine is the tea of choice and I have it on good authority that sitting on a bamboo chair enhances the experience. Teahouses also function as places to exchange gossip, like a word of mouth daily newspaper, where the last speaker becomes the editor.

Finding a place to have tea is like looking for sand on a beach. Take a walk around the craft markets, flea markets, commercial districts, underground shopping malls, you'll trip over them in every nook and alley. When you're not sipping tea, there's a more than even chance you'll be eating. Chengdu has a reputation as the culinary capital of China, but beware your gastronomic delights are bound to be a baptism of fire. Sichuan food has a double-edged way of introducing itself, it's spicy and flavor loaded, but it renders your mouth numb. 

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