You Don't Know Sichuan Food Until You Know the Chongqing/Chengdu Distinction
Ask the average Angeleno what they think the biggest urban area in China is and most will reply with Shanghai (24 million) or Beijing (21 million).
Very few will know of Chongqing, a municipality of the Sichuan province housing upward of 30 million people in the greater area, with an urban population of 18 million. For context, the city of Los Angeles’ urban population just recently topped 4 million.
The cuisine of Chongqing and its sister city, Chengdu, are undergoing a gastronomical renaissance in Southern California. Los Angeles is experiencing a Sichuan revival, and not Sichuan in the sense of diasporic, romanized “Szechuan” cuisine. None of that Panda Express–style glazed kung pao chicken or over-salted mapo tofu. We’re talking real chuan cai, walk-out-of-the-building-sweating-and-on-the-verge-of-tears kind of spice. If you’re still able to feel your mouth at the end of the meal, you’re not doing it right.
Sichuan cuisine’s boom is made all by the better by the subtle differences between its two biggest metropolitan areas. Chongqing is the fierce, sizzling core of the Sichuan province; the city’s unofficial tag is “famous for spicy food and beautiful women.” The kind of spicy food so oil-soaked and flavor-forward you leave in an almost trancelike state. The kind of women who suffer no fools.
Chengdu is the Sichuan province’s capital and seat of government. A city that prides itself on being more cultured and internationally prominent. A city that could easily drink you under the table on a Wednesday night knowing full well it has to work at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Here’s the quick breakdown on some of their classic dishes.
Chongqing Hot Pot
Chongqing hot pot is the iconic dish. Intestines and vegetables are cooked together in a red-hot chili broth, mouth-numbing peppercorns bobbing along in their wake. Sichuan cuisine is known for mala, the ma being “numb” and the la being “spicy.” Chongqing hot pot does you dirty with both.
Tripe and goose intestines are standards of Chongqing hot pot. The latter is made of long, raw strings that when cooked provide a delightful, chewy texture that the flavors of the broth can cling to. Tripe absorbs the spices, and the bumpiness of the intestines can leave a few stray peppercorns clinging on. Dunk it in sesame oil and garlic, a classic dipping sauce, and you've got yourself a spicy punch to the mouth.
One of the few places serving Chongqing-style hot pot in the Greater L.A. area is Shancheng Lameizhi in Rowland Heights. The wait is long and the prices high, but you’ll be soaking up authentic hot pot flavors. At Chongqing Mei Wei in Irvine, you won’t be able to get a live hot pot but you can order a giant dish of veggies and meat stewed in a hot pot–esque broth. It’s wonderful bang for your buck and you’ll have enough leftovers to hot pot it at home the next day.
Chongqing noodles, aka mian, are a common street-food snack. Xiao mian will cost you 60 cents on the street in Chongqing; it’s a simple concoction of noodles, veggies and spicy, spicy broth. Chongqing’s food, like its people, is a relentless hose of fire that never lets up. Xiao mian can be had for breakfast. All spice, all day.
Chongqing’s other noodles include suan la mian (hot and sour noodles) and Sichuan cold noodles — both dishes can be found at Mian in San Gabriel. Mian does a fair job at replicating the hot and sour flavor, although it’s not nearly as spicy as it could be. It has a wide range of other noodles on the menu, including non-spicy options with hearty, meat-based broths. But if you’re looking for an authentic CQ experience, “big spice” is the way to go.
Mung bean jelly noodles with chili sauce at Chengdu Taste
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Chengdu and Chongqing cuisines is that Chengdu uses a touch of sugar here and there, while Chongqing is straight fire. Chengdu is the more internationally friendly city, billing itself as Chongqing’s refined cousin. Thanks to its hints of sugar, Chengdu’s food is more bearable to the Western palate.
Cold mung bean jelly is a classic snack that in Chongqing is nothing but la. In the Chengdu version, sugar makes the mung bean jelly subtly sweet underneath the pack of spice. Fuqi fei pian, which literally translates to “husband and wife lung pieces,” is named so after the Chengdu couple that originated the dish. It’s been given a Westernized nickname of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and GQ recently dubbed it the appetizer of the year. The dish consists of sliced beef drowned in a mixture of Sichuan spices.
Chengdu Taste in Alhambra offers a fantastic rendition of both appetizers.
Both Chongqing and Chengdu are located on major rivers — after all, the name Sichuan comes from the words “si” (four) and “chuan” (rivers). Both love their fish, but Chengdu arguably does seafood better.
There are two main types of broth that come with your fish fillet — red or white. The red may look hotter, but it’s the white that’ll catch you off guard. Szechuan Impression in Alhambra does a boiled fish in rattan pepper that hits all the notes of ma. The first few bites don’t feel spicy, but the kick occurs moments later. Your mouth comes out of the meal tingling, your tongue on its way to numbness. The dish at Szechuan Impression is enough to serve a table of four. Bring friends and have water on hand.
Chongqing and Chengdu are hitting their culinary stride in Southern California, a godsend for our palates and an occasional inconvenience for our bowels. Solid Sichuan spots can be found in the San Gabriel Valley, Rowland Heights and Irvine. If you aren’t breaking a sweat or your nose isn’t running by the end of the meal, try harder. Or rather, try hotter.
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