As has been noted several times since Slow Food announced that its 7th International Congress would be held in Chengdu, this was the first city in Asia to be recognized as a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, and is unquestionably the capital of Chinese cuisine, being the capital of Sichuan Province, one of only a handful of Chinese regions whose names are well-known in the West, and for one reason: food.
So just what it is that sets the cuisine of Chengdu and Sichuan Province apart? Here’s a run-down on some of the region’s most famous dishes, many of which can now be found in Chinese restaurants around the world.
Kung Pao Chicken
Kung Pao is an English transliteration of Gōngbǎo, which means “Palace Guardian”. It is named after Ding Baozhen (1820-1886), a palace guardian during the time of the Qing dynasty. Hot oil is flavored with two local varieties of chili pepper, the facing heaven pepper and the seven stars pepper, as well as Sichuan peppercorns. Peanuts or cashew nuts (fresh, not pre-roasted) are fried in this oil until golden brown, and then chicken meat which has been marinated in Shaoxing wine, as well as other vegetables, are added. As with many of the dishes on this list, it’s particulary famed for its mala, or “hot and numbing” quality, and has a high umami factor too.
Traditionally made with pork belly, the meat is first simmered in water along with spices such as ginger, cloves, star anise, jujubes and salt. After the meat is tender, it is left to cool, then shallow fried in a wok with vegetables such as Jincheng peppers, scallions or napa cappage. Its signature sauce is a highly-fermented mixture called Doubanjiang, which is made of fave beans, chili peppers, salt and wheat flour that is aged up to eight years.
Another dish made with Doubanjiang chili paste, the origins of Mapo Tofu are legendary. Depending on which version of the story you believe, it was either created by a disfigured old woman, who, outcast by society, whipped up the recipe from the meager provisions she had when she finally received a visitor, or else it was created by a respected widow who was well looked after by her community. Whatever the truth of the matter, Mapo Tofu is a classic of Sichuan cuisine, made with Douchi (fermented black soybeans) and often with pork or beef.
Steamed sticky leaf-wrapped rice bun
The steamed, sticky leaf-wrapped rice bun, often simply known as the steamed bun, is a traditional food in the tomb-sweeping festival of the western area of Sichuan province, which is celebrated in early April. It is one of Sichuan’s most famous snacks, made of glutinous rice flour and a filling of fresh meat in a sweet sauce, and wrapped in a lotus leaf.
Sichuan local pancake
Locally known as Guo Kui, it’s famous for its fragrant, crisp and delicate texture. This pancake was originally military food, but is now a common snack in Sichuan Province and a street food classic in Chengdu. It’s a thin, meat-stuffed flatbread usually deep fried in wok oil then left to dry in a wire basket, though the most traditional recipe sees them cooked on a griddle pan for extra mala.
A Chinese saying states that: “the best cuisine is from China, while the richest flavor is from Chengdu”. In Chengdu, gastronomy and life are the same and are based on the notion of striving for harmony while preserving form, beliefs which are rooted in the most ancient Chinese philosophy. The most outstanding feature of Chengdu cuisine is the great variety of flavors, based on the artful mixture of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty flavors – UNESCO
As the 7th Slow Food International draws to a close, we can confirm it for ourselves: Chengdu is a true gastronomy capital.