When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Chengdu's Street Snacks

In Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, there are many yummy things to eat. The city’s street snacks are especially appealing. Eateries and vendors line the streets and markets offering quick bites to go. Among the myriad of choices are these favorites of mine, classic street snacks that have now become symbols of the city’s colorful cuisine.

Cold Noodles (涼麵; liang▪mian) and Cold “Fun” (涼粉; liang▪fen) – Chengduers love hot foods from red chilies. But when the weather gets hot, they get their hot noodles cold. The cold noodles are mixed with a numbing-hot sauce made of sesame paste, dried red chilies, and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Blanched bean sprouts are garnished on top. The same dish can be made with noodles made from mung beans or konnyaku, a type of potato. These noodles are called “fun,” or fen in Mandarin. (In southern China, fun refers specifically to noodles made from rice.) Chengdu’s cold noodles and cold fun are the inspirations for Japanese cold noodles called “hiyashi chuuka” (ひやし中華), which translates as “Cold Chinese-style (Noodles).”

Mr. Zhong’s Dumplings (Jiao) (鐘水餃; zhong▪shui▪jiao) – Chengdu’s “Zhong Dumplings” look like the jiao dumplings found throughout China, so what’s the big deal with these? A local chef surnamed Zhong first made his famous dumplings in 1931 with an all-meat filling, as opposed to the northern style of mixing meat (usually ground pork) with a vegetable like napa cabbage. The dumplings are boiled in water and served with a peppery chili oil.

Mr. Lai’s Rice Ball (Yuan) Soup (賴湯圓; lai▪tang▪yuan) – Yuan is a rice ball made from sticky rice flour, and tangyuan, or rice ball soup, is a dish eaten primarily during the winter, in particular on the Lantern Festival 15 days after the Lunar NewYear. So, what’s the big deal with these rice balls in comparison to the other rice balls found throughout China? Nothing really, except for the name. Mr. Lai first made his dumplings on the streets of Chengdu in 1894. The original filling was ground black sesame. Today, other fillings include sweet ones like ground peanuts, and savory ones like meats and vegetables.

Beef Cold Cuts (夫妻肺片; fu▪qi fei▪pian) – Also called “Husband-and-Wife Beef Slices,” the beef, generally brisket and tripe half and half but can also be offal, is sliced thinly and served cold with a dousing of numbing-hot sauce made of sesame oil, red chilies, soy sauce, and Sichuan peppercorns. A sprinkling of peanut powder completes the dish. I first discovered fuqi feipian (pronounced foo-chee fay-pian) while in graduate school at Northwestern, at a place in Chicago’s Chinatown called “Lao Sze Chuan.” It was so lip-smacking good that I ordered it every time I went there.

Dan Dan Noodles (擔擔麵; dan▪dan▪mian) – On the surface, dan dan noodles doesn’t look like much—it’s just some noodles with a generous smattering peanut powder on top. But once you dig into it, you discover that there is a magical sauce of sesame paste, black rice vinegar, and pickled mustard tuber underneath. The flavor is perky and complex—sweet, savory, numbing, sour, and hot, all at the same time.

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