My primary reason for wanting to visit Chengdu was not to see the pandas, but to eat MALA HOT POT!
Authentic Mala hot pot 麻辣火锅 is real good. Fresh vegetables, tender meats, MSG laden sauces and of course, the chili oil broth make all the difference. Those infamous little peppercorns are also added to the mix and are a distinguishing ingredient of Sichuan food. Tiny and unassuming in appearance, the peppercorns are what give you that weird mouthfeel as you eat, kicking up the spiciness by a few notches. We each ate some on their own and realized that they were actually not that hot, just numbing and tingly. But when eaten with chili peppers, the spiciness spreads around your tongue, burning and numbing your entire mouth in devilish harmony.
Sichuan Province is known for it’s peppery cuisine and spicy snacks. I applaud the people living there for maintaining stomachs of steel over the centuries. I don’t know if I could live there and eat that type of cuisine day after day. Less than a week eating a diet consisting primarily of chili peppers and oil, my stomach was not pleased. But I understand why they do it – eating spicier foods inevitably raises one’s body temperature, so it helps people keep warm, especially through the colder months of autumn and winter. A small price to pay for homeostasis.
In addition to the regional cuisine, Chengdu is cool. I didn’t expect it to be as nice of a city as it was, and I felt surprised at how developed and modern it is. The people there are also very laid back and really friendly. For example, we stopped at a small fruit stand and I accidentally knocked over some giant pomelos, but didn’t get reprimanded by the sales woman. She kind of just laughed and made fun of me. It was a nice moment, as I expected to get scolded like I usually do when things like that happen to me in Hong Kong markets.
Chengdu also has some really nice cafés! There’s a whole strip of cafés and bars on Xiao Tong Alley 小通巷. A lot of them had porches leading up to the door, and the insides were just redecorated, vintage-style living rooms. They reminded me a bit of Taiwanese/ Japanese cafés and if we had the time, I would’ve liked to wander in to a few more.
We got to most of our points of interest, via bike including Jinli Ancient Street 锦里古街 and the Tibetan Quarter. Bike riding in Chengdu is a little daunting because of the traffic, but so much fun and definitely a more intimate way of experiencing the city…or any new place for that matter.