Pepper is the nom de plume of one for Chengdu's most prolific food bloggers, who posts at Sichuan's capital looking for the best mao cai (a personal hot pot for which you pick ingredients to add to a delectably spicy broth), ferreting out where the tastiest noodles are and then posting reviews with pictures and addresses to the blog on an almost daily basis. So, for any self-styled gourmands heading to Chengdu, check out Pepper's blog pronto. Eager to find more about how Pepper got into Sichuan food, some favorite spots and the significance of the signature numbing heat of mala. >>>China Travel: Who are you and where are you from?
Pepper: A teacher from Canada...
China Travel: How long have you been in Chengdu?
Pepper: Have been here four years, drinking tea and teaching English.
China Travel: How did you get into food, are you a chef?
Pepper: Nope, but enjoy cooking and have worked in a few professional kitchens. I'm not that interested in Chinese food from a technical or historical point of view at this point; don't feel that my language skills are at a level where I could really dive into it. Right now I am much more interested in what regular people eat and why.
In Chengdu we have this amazing and very distinct cuisine, we have the Sichuan regional cuisines, and we are starting to have decent international food here as well. People are eating more meat and a larger variety of foods from a variety of cooking styles. Food safety, environmental, and health issues are on people's minds though; I've noticed a definite trend towards healthy and organic food lately. Making cakes and chocolates at home is a new thing too....
China Travel: Could you name some of your favorite spots to eat in Chengdu and why?
Pepper: My regular haunts are cheap, convenient (to me) and healthy. Ye Ti Hua in the Shuangnan neighborhood, the Yibin Ran Mian across from People's Park, any mao cai place with clean-looking broth where you can pick your own ingredients. Xiao Tan Dou Hua on Xi Da Jie for its fantastic douhua and snacks. Xi Da Dou Tang Fan is my go to home-style restaurant.
If I am introducing visitors to the local food I always get a mala hand shredded barbecued rabbit from Grandma Wang's—it's like the whole flavour of Chengdu in one bite. My first recommendation for hot pot is always Shu Jiu Xiang—they are all over the city, have good service, and you can usually find an English menu.
For non-Chinese food I usually end up at one of the bigger hotels. I have respect for anyone who tries to run an independent restaurant serving non-local food here, but the product is often mediocre or inconsistent. That said, I liked Le Sud a lot the couple of times I visited, and Symphonie (open again in January) does a very good job. I really enjoy the food at the Sultan but not the dark and smoky dining area.
China Travel: What distinguishes the good restaurants from the great ones?
Pepper: Good places serve you good food in an environment that enhances the experience, whether it be a high or low end place. There are all kinds of ways for a restaurant to distinguish itself—using really superior ingredients, or highly skilled cooking, or beautifully presented food—but really great places will do it consistently, and the staff are competent and well managed and take pride in their work.
China Travel: How important are ma and la to Sichuan food? Are people who choose not to eat spicy or ma foods missing out on much? [Note: Ma and la mean, roughly, "numbing" and "spicy," with the "numbing" part of the flavor coming from the unique Sichuan peppercorn].
Pepper: Yes and no. You can come here and eat all kinds of local food for a very, very long time and not get bored without eating ma and la. However, the different shades of heat and numbing and their interplay in dishes is really, really important. If you look at local food discussion boards and Yelp-type sites they often discuss the different kinds of spiciness in dishes—the straightforward "dry" heat, the biting kind of heat that comes from vinegar, the afterburn, and such.
China Travel: If I were a newcomer to the city and I am trying to eat good, what should I know do?
Pepper: If you find a good noodle/snack shop or two, a homestyle restaurant, one place with your version of comfort food, one place with good barbecue for late night, and your neighborhood fresh market, you are set. But keep an open mind and follow your own nose. There is tons of great stuff to discover.