Chengdu: urban hell and culinary heaven

Plates of skewers lined up ready for grilling

I looked out over the vast expanse of rotting concrete appartment blocks and crumbling office buildings. They peered back from under the blanket of gritty polluted fog that lay over the city. Billious clouds floated low and heavy overhead. The immense hazy city sprawled right out to far horizon and beyond.

We were driving over a multi-laned highway from the airport, raised high above the spread out mass of Chengdu. It was vast, dirty and looked like it had sprung from the dystopian imagination of William Gibson. The food had better be as good as they say, I reflected as the road dipped, and we slipped into the city.

I’ve wanted to visit Chengdu ever since I got my hands on a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe book-cum-paean to the city and its spicy cuisine. It sounded exotic, exciting, full of culinary wonders, tea houses by the river and street kitchens blasting out high quality grub.

Central Chengdu
Grey buildings, grey sky…grey water

After the crisp, thin air of Tibet, this heavy polluted and humid soup of an atmosphere was suffocating. As soon as we got out of the car my nose started to run and my eyes watered. Vehicles were whizzing by uncomfortably close. Even the minor roads were many lanes wide, as busy as the M25, but with non of the decorum.

There was a discernible frisson of things happening, deals being struck and great wheels of industry turning. Chengdu is a boom town writ large, 15 million people and growing at a dizzying rate. I got a feel for what newcomers must have felt when they first arrived in Sheffield during the industrial revolution or New York at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the expert grillers
Feeding the hungry masses

Next to this hungry behemoth, London felt like a sedate, modest county town. For the first time I appreciated what people mean when they talk about China as a rising economic super power. It was overwhelming. The city presses in and down on you, full of the relentless motion and restless energy of somewhere on the make.

But you don’t come to Chengdu to see great sites, although Wuhou temple and Wangjianglou bamboo park are worth a visit, despite the greasy layer of pollution covering every surface. And of course there are the pandas. You come to Chengdu to taste one of the World’s great, and most exciting, cuisines.

Skewers cooked and ready to eat
Grilled skewers

And although the rose-tinted tea-house-and-willow-tree specs were brutally ripped off on arrival, the food here really is very good indeed. Wherever we ate, from street stalls to to plush restaurants, the food was uniformly excellent. And extremely spicy.

The street food of the moment was quite definitely grilled skewers. Whenever we turned a corner, someone had set up a grill with innumerable – and mostly unrecognisable – things on sticks, ready to select grill over glowing coals.

Making noodles to order
Pounding noodles straight into the boiling broth

But this wasn’t all there was. There were fresh noodles being pounded straight into of cauldrons boiling broth by bare chested young men. Squares of wobbling tofu offered by matronly women, cumin and chilli laced Uighur lamb kebabs from the far west, and hundreds of wee street-side eateries. And all of the food from cold aubergine salads to firey chicken hotpots was brilliant.

Evenings brought the locals out in crowds looking for respite from the steamy summer heat. Tables spilled out onto the restaurants and thousands of people munched their bbq, glugged the local beer and chatted loudly into their mobiles. We dived into a hotpot specialist, and despite having no language – written or spoken – in common, had one of the best meals of the trip.

Pieces of chicken floated in a super-powered broth, the scent of which brought me out in a sweat. With the first bite, a thousand firey flavours invaded my mouth, combining into a wonderful tasty whole. Dousing the heat with beer we forged ahead, finishing the whole thing, much to the staff’s amazement.

Seasoning mid-grill
Seasoning those skewers with some liberal spice

On the street we piled up mountains of strange and wonderful skewers, delivering them to be grilled to a fiery and numbing perfection. I recognised chicken skin, hearts, legs, pork, sausages and mushrooms. But what were the squigly orange meaty things, the funny sliced balls, the odd vegetables? Every mouthful was an exploratory tingly delight.

As time went on we discovered some strange sites – wet markets full of live frogs and snakes, stalls with dried pork and fish in piles upstairs. A pet market next door with cute rare breed dogs next to abandoned cats panting in the heat in closed shops. There were streets full of mobile phone shops that would dwarf any UK department store. Cars and multi-lane roads ran everywhere with melon and lychee sellers by the sides, hawking their wares.

Strage fish at the wet market
Fresh fish in the wet market

After a few days, despite the glorious food, all that noise, dirt and pollution, the whole non-stop don’t-look-back rush of life became too wearying. My throat and nasal passages felt stripped raw, and the unremittingly ugly concrete landscape became too depressing. If we went again, I’d try to find a local to show us round, because in a city of 15 million with no Mandarin, it was exhausting. But very tasty.

17 Responses to “Chengdu: urban hell and culinary heaven”

  1. Oliver

    Cum-paean eh?

    This looks amazing, I wish to go greatly and sample all this food. Was there quite a bit of fish about then?

  2. Food Urchin

    Really enjoyed reading that Aaron, you certainly created a forboding sense of two world’s colliding with this post. And the food looked amazing despite it all.

    But one thing, when has the M25 ever had any sense of decorum?

  3. The Grubworm

    @Oliver – there was a surprising amount of fish, although mostly of the riverine variety. But I think they were outnumbered by the frogs and snakes. There were thousands of them hopping and slithering around

    @Paul – it was good, the food was pretty amazing that’s for sure. I would definitely try and do it with a local contact as well. I suspect we missed loads of good places

    @Food Urchin – thanks! That was my point really, these roads made the M25 look decorous ;)

  4. Mr Noodles

    The funny thing is that Chengdu, whilst undoubtedly frantic and busy, is considered chilled out and languid by many in cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou!

    As always, some great photos – especially love the shot of the noodle man!

  5. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles – I had heard that and so was expecting something much more laid back than I found…. I suspect that it’s all relative. The people were certainly pretty chilled out, even though they were also always on the move. There was a lot of smiling and laughing apparent.

    @Thursday – Thanks :)

  6. Kavey

    Oooh, you’re good you are… never been but feel like I can see and smell and hear and feel it!

  7. The Grubworm

    Thanks @Kavey, i can still smell the place… Pollution mixed with Sichuan peppercorns. No wonder my nose was raw ;)

  8. Mzungu

    From what I can remember I found Chengdu to be the most relaxed of the big cities in China. But that was 10 years ago.
    Its old quarter was still there and was an amazing place to wander around, but I believe it has all been torn down to make way for progress.
    But yeah the food is what Chengdu is famed for and it is good. I wonder how long a restaurant brought straight from Chengdu would last in London with the wellingtoned, bare chested chef cooking for the masses.

  9. Sian

    Funny, we always think of London being all non-stop don’t-look-back. But it’s really nothing in comparison to some places, is it?

    Wonderful writing as always, Mr. Grubworm.

  10. The Grubworm

    @Mzungu – I certainly got the feeling that buildings were shooting up at a frightening rate. The nearest we found to an old town (outside of the odd temple) was a theme-parky street near the Tibean quarter. I would love to see a Chengdu restaurant in London. I guess places like Chilli Cool come closest to the hole-in-the-wall food.

    @Sian – it is funny, and kind of frightening when you are in the middle of all that rush (and tumble). Thanks!

  11. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles and @Mzungu – perhaps that is where the chilli-laced spirit of Old Chengdu moved to when the development began… ;)

  12. Sharmila

    Such a fabulous post! Regardless of all the pollution and urbanisation, I am still itching to go. I have a business card that has been sat in my purse for ages for someone who can help arrange you a stint at the Sichuan Culinary Institute. I keep on telling myself, one day….

  13. The Grubworm

    @Sharmila – i would go if you have an insider contact. I have this nagging suspicion that we probably missed all the interesting stuff before high-tailing it out of there.

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