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Chengdu: All about Giant Pandas and Sichuanese Food
by Margaux Schreurs - Aug 26, 2015
Chengdu is one of my favorite holiday destinations in China, partially because of its incredible history and diverse culture, but mostly because of its incredible food. The capital of Sichuan Province is known for its spices, not only chili but also the Sichuan peppercorn which is used in dishes abroad. However, nowhere is the Sichuan cooking as authentic as in Sichuan, obviously. This is why my first two days in Chengdu were spent visiting panda bears, and eating.
I was lucky in that some of my friends actually live in Chengdu, and so I was able to stay with them and they were able to guide me to the best food in the city. My first afternoon, we dove straight in and went for a walk around the Tibetan quarter. This was also where we found my first bowl of Dandan Noodles, dandanmian (担担面).
Dandan Noodles are a staple in Sichuan cuisine, and are commonly served alongside a meal instead of rice. The steaming bowl of noodles are topped off with a sauce containing preserved vegetables, mustard stems, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, a little bit of minced pork, and scallions. Sometimes crushed peanuts or sesame paste is also added, but the flavors of the noodles are always so, so good already.
My first bowl of Dandan noodles after arriving in Chengdu
We got the noodles from a little restaurant with tables outside, and I found that the flavors there were much stronger and better than the variety of these noodles that I usually eat in Beijing. This meant that my trip to Chengdu quickly turned into a challenge to eat as many bowls of Dandan Noodles as possible.
During the afternoon of my first day, we walked around the shops and neighborhood some more, passing by some local markets. There were also a few good souvenir shops.
Chickens lined up at the local market
We decided to spend the afternoon at the tea market, which actually had even more Dandan Noodle shops. The tea stores all stored a huge range of local teas and teas throughout the entire country. We chose on a store and started chatting to the staff, she was really knowledgeable and explained everything about the different types of teas. She then made us about 30 cups of tea, all using different leaves. Some of the teas were very expensive, but regardless, we weren’t pressured to buy too much tea, we probably only spent about 100 yuan in total, buying a little bit of a few different local teas for me to take home.
Even more noodles at the tea market
Because Chinese teas all have different brewing processes, the staff in the store even wrote down the specific instructions for each type of tea. The afternoon was thus enjoyable but also interesting. Tea makes for perfect presents for friends, too.
This evening, my friends decided it was time to introduce me to a popular Chengdu restaurant – Cesuo Chuanchuan, which translates as Toilet Skewers. There are a few branches of this popular restaurant which serves lots of different meats, vegetables, and other foods on skewers in a bowl of hot (both in terms of temperature and spiciness) broth flavored with both chili and Sichuan peppercorn.
A chain of Chengdu’s popular toilet skewer restaurant
The skewers are inexpensive (a couple of yuan each depending on what was on them) so we filled up an entire bowl. My favorite skewers were the doufupi also known as tofu skin, and the quail eggs. We then also chose a sauce to dip our skewers in. I preferred the oyster sauce, and my friend preferred the sesame sauce. Both of us added scallions and some cordiander to the sauces too. Not only were the sauces delicious, but they also provided a little bit of relief from the heat! Although everything was really spicy, Sichuan food is so delicious it is all worth it.
Our bowl of selected skewers
The second day we visited the panda research base to see China’s national treasure. Compared to zoos throughout the entire country, I felt relieved that the pandas in the conservation center are living in much better conditions, and are much more active and happy. Pandas are hanging out in the trees, in tree houses, and sitting by the side of their enclosures happily eating bamboo.
Pandas at the Chengdu research base of giant panda breeding
You can stroll around freely through the green space to see different panda enclosures. All signs explain more about the specific pandas, their ages, their likes and dislikes, and where their names came from. We were lucky and also got to see some panda cubs which was fun. The younger panda enclosures have a lot of toys for the panda bears too, it is basically just a playground for pandas.
Pandas up in the trees
The red panda enclosure was also interesting, as it appears that these animals are generally forgotten about. However, they are also classified as pandas, and they are also endemic to this region. There are also opportunities to volunteer with the pandas if you want to, but prices for that are quite steep. Of course this is a once in a lifetime experience, so if you’re a big panda fan it’s worth looking into.
The pandas and Sichuanese cuisine are some of the most local Chengdu treats, so the rest of the trip we decided to head over to Qingcheng Mountain, not too far from the city and easily accessible by high-speed railway.