When you’re in the capital of Sichuan province, snacking is a way of life. Noodles made of bracken, wheat, eeickpeas, mung beans and more, as well as tofu puddings and dumplings, make up the city’s “small eats” (小吃, xiǎochī) scene, served from what’s colloquially known as “fly restaurants.” A step above street food, these family-owned eateries are so called because they attract diners like flies, despite what might seem like a less-than-hygienic atmosphere, because the food is too good to miss. Find a hole-in-the-wall that has more diners than stools, and order one of these local specialties for a delicious meal.
Dan Dan Mian (担担面)
These street food noodles are named after the pole (担, dān) that hawkers traditionally used to carry the ingredients for this dish; on each end of the pole hung two baskets – noodles on one basket, sauce in the other. The ingredients in dan dan mian vary according to the chef, but there are a few constants. Sauce made from some combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, vinegar, chilies, Sichuan peppercorn, preserved mustard greens and other pickled vegetables is placed in the bottom of a small bowl. Boiled wheat noodles are placed on top of the sauce, and then ground pork that has been fried in lard with sweet wheat paste (甜面酱, tiánmiànjiàng) is placed on top with a smattering of green onions. Mix it as soon as it arrives at the table.
Tian Shui Mian (甜水面)
These “sweet water noodles” are made of wheat, udon-like in their girth and chewy and dense to the bite. To make a good version, they say the width of the noodle should be equal to the thick end of a chopstick. While there is a slight kick to this bowl, its sweet flavors set it apart from the rest of the fiery options on most menus, thanks to the addition of a reduced soy sauce (复制酱油, fùzhì jiàngyóu). A staple of Sichuan cuisine that somehow never made it into China’s other culinary canons, this sauce is not found in stores. Brown sugar and rock sugar are added to the soy sauce, along with fragrant green onion, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel and Sichuan peppercorn. The mixture is simmered until it reduces by at least one-third. The icing on the cake here is the peanuts, ground fine and piled atop the thick noodles.
Zhong Shui Jiao (钟水饺)
Another Chengdu snack that benefits from the sweetened flavors of fuzhi jiangyou are “bell dumplings.” Legend has it that they date back to 1893, when they were invented by a street vendor surnamed Zhong (“Bell” in English). The crescent-shaped, meat-stuffed dumplings are so famous they have been recognized as a “Famous Chengdu Snack” by the national government – and for Asia’s first UNESCO-designated “City of Gastronomy,” that’s no small distinction. In addition to the sweetened soy sauce, the dumplings often have a spoonful of garlic sauce, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns in the sauce that tops them.
Dou Hua (豆花)
No two bowls of this silken tofu dish are alike, as the fermented bean curd pudding is like a blank canvas just waiting for sweet, savory and spicy ingredients to paint their flavors across it. Sweet versions come swimming with a caramelized rock sugar syrup, goji berries or fermented rice, while the spicier versions add chili oil to wonton crackers, ground pork, green onions or peanuts.
Where to get them:
While any fly restaurant worth its Sichuan peppercorns would turn out a good version of these four dishes, go to the below restaurants for guaranteed good bowls. We asked our go-to Sichuan cai expert, Jenny Gao, a Chengdu native and fanatical foodie, for recommendations when we headed out there and she came through big. Keep an eye on this food blogger-turned-restaurateur – she’s opening Fly By Jing, a Sichuan fly restaurant pop up in Shanghai (and London). We can already vouch for her handmade tian shui mian and zhong shui jiao.
Dong Zi Kou Zhang Lao Er Liang Fen
Just across the street from the famous Wen Shu Monastery, Dong Zi Kou is the perfect stop before you head into the tea courtyard and drink your fill. You just might want another bowl by the time you’ve reached peak zen.
Xiao Ming Tian Shui Dan Dan Mian
The name says it all, and there are multiple locations around town.
Xiao Tan Dou Hua
This place specializes in tofu pudding, but don’t miss the noodles. They’ve been dishing them out since the 1940s.