Food, beer, tuk tuks. What’s not to love? We’ve covered a few food tours during our time in China, but this is the first time we’ve hit upon one in our own neck of the woods.
Though mostly famed internationally for it’s heat and liberal use of fiery chillies, Sichuan food has been recognised by UNESCO as an ‘intangible cultural treasure’ for it’s variety and complexity. It’s not all spicy, there is also a bewildering array of tangy, sweet, salty, and occasionally frightening delights on offer for the intrepid foodie in China’s mountainous heartland. If you’re fond of Chinese food, Sichuan is the place to be. And Chengdu, the largest city in Sichuan province, has more to tickle your palate than you could ever wish for.
Last week, we teamed up with the guys from ‘Lost Plate’ to showcase some of the best traditional dishes that can be found around the city. Or rather, I should say, some of the best dishes that cannot be found around the city, ‘cept by those who already know where they are.
The main focus of this ‘Lost Plate’ tour is heritage. As our guide explained, they select only the very small family-run restaurants around the city, particularly ones that have been established for multiple generations. This means seeking out some very, very hidden gems, in a city larger than the five biggest cities of Europe combined.
Often when covering food tours I’ve been known to comment that the organised tours make easy that which is difficult to reproduce alone. In the case of this ‘Lost Plate’ tour, they make easy what would be physically impossible to reproduce. Many of the sites we visited were so tucked-away and unassuming that I know I’ll never be able to find them again. Not even with the assistance of military grade GPS, a Navaho scout, and a team of frenzied bloodhounds.
And that’s a shame really, because much of the food was bloody fantastic.
Our tour commenced on a rainy Friday evening in the heart of the city. We were met at an easy to reach metro station by our friendly english-speaking guides and ushered towards our evening’s transportation. This is something that distinguishes Lost Plate from the majority of food tours we’ve covered over the years, they provide personal transportation between each of the sites (a mighty good thing on a cold and rainy evening), but nothing so mundane as taxis or minibuses. Your chariot for the night is the always amusing tricycle tuk-tuk.
Another selling point of the tour was the promise of infinite free beer. ‘Infinite’, ‘Free’ and ‘Beer’ happen to be some of my favourite words, especially when utilised in conjunction with one another. Though it’s still a bold assertion to make to an Englishman. I enquired, as I cast my eye over the amply stocked cooler box adorning each of the tuk-tuks; “What happens if we run out?”
“Easy” our guide assured me. “We’ll get more”.
Right. Infinite beer, spicy food, and comedy transportation. This was to be an evening to remember.
Chengdu Traditional food.
So our first taste of the night was something of a confectionery, as it happens. A small stand serving up fried sweet rice balls (Tang you gui zi) 糖油果子 . During my years in China I dare say I’ve wandered past a thousand identical setups, all without ever bothering to scrutinise the wares that were actually being offered. I shall not do so again.
The rice balls are delivered five to skewer and are roughly the size of golf balls. They have a crispy, sugary crust, and a taste that’s reminiscent of a freshly-made doughnut. I don’t mean the sweetened, chocolate and marshmallow festooned atrocities that seem to pass for doughnuts these days, I mean the simple, old fashioned type. Search your memories to way back, when you were a child at the seaside or the fairground, and you’d wait impatiently for your doughnut to be plucked from the fryer, and you’d sink your teeth right in to it the moment it was.
It’s just like that, only with a slightly crispier crust and a hint of sesame.
Our guide also explained that, much like the old doughnuts, these treats have a very short shelf life. Between leaving the pan hot and becoming completely inedible cold, there is a window of about 3 minutes. But what a 3 minutes.
I’ve actually a small bone to pick with the proprietor of this stall. Because ever since my wife was introduced to them, I have been tasked with tracking down a supply in our home town. Cue a great deal of fruitless motorcycling around some very murky back alleys and night markets. Thus far, my quest is incomplete.
Next stop, ‘egg baked cake’ (Dan hong gao) 蛋烘糕 is what we were told. Pancakes to you and I essentially. Another hole-in-the-wall outfit, but a well respected one, if it’s popularity is any indication. Trade was brisk, to say the least, the harried staff were turning them out at a rate of about four a minute, but it seemed like for every pancake that left the counter, three more customers joined the queue. Mr Bob’s (yet to be published, or even written) ‘Idiot’s Guide To Asia’ states that when a restaurant has a large queue, there’s a reason the restaurant has a large queue. And you should therefore join this queue at the earliest opportunity.
Luckily for us, our guides seemed to be afforded some priority treatment and we were served right away.
The pancakes were available with a choice of fillings, including: green peppers & ham, spicy veg salad, sesame & sugar, and, oddly, pork floss & cream. I opted for the pepper and ham. The peppers carried a fair old kick, but on a cold winter’s night, that’s generally what I’m looking for. The overall taste of savoury veg and meat wrapped up in a sweet crepe-like pancake worked well. I’m thinking of trying to reproduce this concoction at home.
Sadly, this is where I failed you as a food correspondent, because when offered a second, a professional would have sampled one of the sweet options to provide a balanced account. Mr Bob however uttered, through a mouthful of pancake, “yup, another of those green pepper and ham ones for me, please!”
Restaurant number 3 was a real experience. And I use the word restaurant in it’s loosest possible definition.
Our duo of tuk-tuks deposited us at the entrance to a narrow and dimly-lit alleyway, through which we accessed a further and even more narrow and dimly lit alleyway, and, just when I thought we must surely be lost, we ascended a rickety metal staircase that appeared to have been crudely grafted on to the second floor of an apartment building. This stairway culminated in an entranceway little over a metre in height, and then-on into what seemed to be the inside of a pretty standard Chinese apartment. I glanced around further, it was an apartment. And that hobbit sized door through which we had entered, was the kitchen window. There was even the family dog, and the obligatory aged grandfather watching television in the corner.
That really was the situation, as we were told. A generation or two back, some Chengdu housewife made some decent food, and would serve it up to others to make ends meet. Eventually, fame blossomed and demand reached the point at which the family re-purposed a fair portion of their home to become a full-time kitchen-cum-cafe, with some fire-escape stairs bolted on to one window to provide street level access. Unconventional, for sure. I couldn’t wait to see what home-cooked delights necessitated such measures.
As it turned out, my favourite of the evening.
Chengdu spicy Chaoshou, a local variety of wonton dumplings. The name means ‘crossed arms’ and there’s a story attached to this that the guides will happily pass on. We were served up one helping of squid & chicken wontons, and another of spicy pork wontons, and it’s this second one, the dry spicy pork wontons that take my gold medal for the evening, they were absolutely magnificent. Soft, with a spice laden exterior and a succulent, moist and meaty filling, these were probably the best wontons I’ve ever had. And as someone who’s been in China for three years, and Asia in general for eight, I speak with some authority on the subject of spicy dumplings.
The only downside, I know I’ll never find them again. The place was so tucked away and unannounced that I’m sure I could wander the backstreets of Chengdu for a dozen lifetimes without ever tracking it down.
The evening and the feasting rolled ever onward, our booze-filled tuk-tuks delivering us first to a noodle restaurant then to another specialising in twice-cooked pork (one of Marie’s personal favourites). I’ll let the photos speak on these, because, though excellent, they are well known and recognised dishes requiring little elucidation from me. Or I could just be an idle scrote saving my typing energy for expressing my mirth at witnessing our fellow food adventurers coming face-to-face with a raw pig’s brain later in the evening. One of those two excuses is definitely true.
The penultimate stop on our tour (though the last of the food) was a barbecue/skewer restaurant. If you’ve spent any period of time in rural China, you’ll have come to fear the word ‘barbecue’ in a way that we never would in the west. It’s not that there isn’t good food available on the skewers at these places, it’s just that when you’re invited to them by Chinese friends or work colleagues, your hosts will invariably take great delight in selecting only the most gruesome titbits.
Exhibit A: The roasted rabbits head.
Something of a sore subject for Marie and I, since we have for the last two years, had a much-loved pet rabbit. Consequently Miss Marie turned down this particular delicacy.
I have no such qualms. In fact, I have regularly been known to threaten the aforementioned pet rabbit with a skillet and a jar of rosemary on those occasions when she chooses to trample on me at 7am on a Sunday morning because she’s decided it’s breakfast time. What the hell, serve me up some rabbits face.
Actually, it was really tasty. Must order that rabbit-sized roasting dish. . . .
I can see why the organisers save the skewer place until last. At this point you’re already full to bursting anyway, so if some of the grisly items on display are going to put you off eating, no harm done. I also know that many people undertaking a food tour in western China aren’t going to be satisfied going away without photographic evidence of some of the, shall we say, ‘interesting’ things that appear on the dinner plate out here.
Of course there is also a fair selection of beef, chicken, and vegetable skewers available, on the off chance that the last five restaurants haven’t quite satisfied your appetite.
And if you’re brave, then dive right in and try the pig’s brain, or the duck’s intestines, or the chicken’s feet, or the fish heads, or the cow’s stomach. You never know what you might like.
Also worth noting, this particular place makes their own booze. A sort of liqueur made from corn, sweet of taste and devastating of potency. Our little group of five polished off two bottles of this stuff. All included in the tour, I might add.
Lastly, our adventure ended with a visit to small bar high up in one of the city’s skyscrapers. We were offered a choice of imported Belgian beers, and given time to relax and enjoy the view of Chengdu by night. A comfortable and pleasant way to end an exciting evening and an exceedingly well thought out tour.
Would we recommend this tour?
A big, big Yes! This was one of the most entertaining food tours we’ve done in Asia, and with a very reasonable price tag, especially impressive considering it includes transportation all evening and the “infinite” (did I mention that already?) drinks. A varied selection of local food, much of it excellent, some very unusual locations, guides who are good fun and passionate about what they do, and a commendable approach to supporting local small businesses over the encroaching chains.
Well, obviously, if you’re vegetarian or vegan you’re probably going to want to look elsewhere. I could recommend a good turnip field. And also, don’t expect luxury in your surroundings either, several of the spots on the tour are street food vendors with no chairs or tables so you’ll be eating standing up some of the time, and others are busy small restaurants where conditions can be a little cramped. But all in all, a small price to pay for some of the best traditional food in the country.
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We would like to thank Lost Plate for providing us a complimentary tour. Please note that, as always, all opinions expressed in this review are our own and have not been influenced in any way.