Steamed pork ribs and rice powder with nangua (winter squash or pumpkin)
Stroll awhile among the aisles of a market like this one and you're bound to leave hungry.
Fortunately Chengdu is packed with casual, inexpensive eateries serving proper dishes (as opposed to snacks such as noodles, dumplings, and breads/'pancakes') where you can sample Sichuan's seasonal bounty. My suspicion is that no restaurant here is out of reach of the intrepid non-Chinese speaker, but kuai can ('quick meal') and mizheng rou (steamed meat with rice powder) are pretty much point-and-shoot operations, and thus particularly accessible to the traveler whose Chinese vocabularly is limited to Ni hao and zai jian.
You'll know a kuai can joint by the table out front laid with big metal bowls offering an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes (just visible above, to the right). They're a bit like Vietnam's com binh dan places in that for a set price you get a (usually huge) serving of rice and a selection of three dishes. It's as easy as handing over your cash and pointing at what you'd like to eat.
At the place pictured above (directly across the street from the market I wrote about here, coincidentally) they were dishing up to office and construction workers (6 kuai, about US 80 cents person); most folks opted to eat from styrofoam takeaway trays. We asked instead that our dishes be served separately from our rice.
Left, from top: pork liver and green peppers, stir-fried lotus root and mapo dofu. Right, from top: celery and pork slices, a medley of mushrooms, hot and sour cabbage. Plus rice and a bowl of hot rice water, for drinking. Total: 12 yuan.
It should be no surprise that quality at these places is all over the map. This meal was had on our first full day in Chengdu and we were pretty happy with it (ie. it may not be pretty, but it was tasty). The lotus root was crunchy, the mapo dofu fiery if a bit light on numbing Sichuan peppercorn, the cabbage crisp-tender and nicely tart-spicy, and the mushrooms, a mixture of at least three varieties, earthy and meaty. And we arrived around 11:45 am -- just before lunch -- so everything was hot (turnover is quick at kuai can joints, so you can be fairly sure of a freshly cooked meal).
But several days later we ate kuai can in a nearby alley that blew that first one off the map.
It was dished up by the cook himself -- always a good sign. We'd wandered past several times before and each time he'd asked us to stop and eat. When we finally did, we were grateful that he'd persisted.
This was in all truthfulness a second lunch, so we only had room for two items: douhua (simmered bean curd served with chili sauce -- an exquisite Sichuan specialty that we'll devote an entire post to down the line) and a dish of blood-red carrots, spicy green capsicum, potatoes, and fresh wood ear fungus stewed with nothing more than salt and a few fatty bits of pork belly -- a few basic ingredients taken to supreme heights with the simplest of preparations. This one was pure genius; after three weeks here in Sichuan it remains one of the culinary highlights of our trip.
If kuai can doesn't appeal, keep an eye out for big metal (and less and less often, these days) bamboo steamers set out by the sidewalk. After mid-morning, when breakfast snacks like baozi (steamed dumplings) and mantou are sold out, these apparati hide steamed dishes like egg custard, yacai (pickled vegetable) crowned with thin slabs of pork belly, and mizheng rou, or meat (usually pork) mixed with toasted rice powder and steamed.
Mizheng rou dishes are turned out onto a plate before serving
Mizheng rou comprise an entire genre of dishes -- something I wasn't aware of until this visit to Chengdu. (In 1991, at a Chengdu friend's parents' house, we ate mizheng niurou -- steamed beef with cilantro and scallions, a recipe for which can be found in Dunlop's Land of Plenty.) The most common type, at least at this time of year, seems to be the one in the photo that opens this post: meaty pork ribs with sweet winter squash. It's about as comforting a dish as you'd imagine, the ribs nearly falling off the bone and the sweet squash enriched by its juices. The toasted rice clings to the meat, adding a bit of soft texture, and its soaked with the flavors of the pork and winter squash. All in all it's a fabulously flavorful and comforting dish that we haven't been able to get enough of this trip.
Sometimes mizheng rou eateries also offer kuai can, in bowls out front or on a smaller scale, from plates on display inside a glass case; stir-fries may also be available (in which case you'll probably be handed a menu). At this shop -- which was also a short walk from our first kuai can lunch -- we ordered, in addition to an ethereally fluffy steamed egg custard and the pork ribs with squash --
Clockwise from top: sauteed stem lettuce stem, pork meatballs, daikon, bean sprouts sauteed with chili pepper, stewed potatoes
a kuai can medley of stewed potatoes, bean sprouts lightly cooked with dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, the stem portion of stem lettuce sauteed, tender white radish, and tiny pork meatballs that were so light on the tongue they were barely there.
As usual, pao cai (pickled vegetable - every place makes its own) is a must-have accompaniment.Every eatery makes their own and every version is different. This one, of red radish and celery, was lightly spicy, very sour, and not as salty as some we've sampled.
Standard acccompaniment to a Sichuan meal: pao cai or pickled vegetable
You can hardly walk a block in Chengdu without bumping into a steamer full of mizheng niurou -- we've sampled many in the last few weeks and they've all been excellent.
Some Chinese language ability helps, but it's not necessary at these places. Don't pass through Chengdu without including one of these spots in your eating itinerary.