It's a challenge to find genuine street food in Chengdu. Last year, in a bid to have Chengdu declared China's most wenming (cultured, civilized) city the municipal government initiated a campaign to sweep food vendors from its roads. It seems to have worked pretty well, at least in the center of town.
But one local specialty has survived the purge: dou hua.
Malaysians will recognize dou hua as tau foo fah; it's also known as bean curd custard. In one incarnation (I'll get to the other in a bit) dou hua is silky-smooth soft bean curd that holds it's shape when scooped but jiggles nicely and gives way with the slightest pressure of a spoon. It's eaten warm -- here in Malaysia, most often with a slug of white or palm sugar syrup but in Chengdu,with all of the condiments that make Sichuan food so wonderfully addictive. (Children often eat it with only granulated sugar).
"Dou hua liang mian dou huaaaaaa! Dou hua liang mian dou huaaaaa!" (Dou hua cold noodles dou hua!)
That's a cry you're guaranteed to hear if you set for a spell at the tea garden in the park that runs along the north bank of the Jinjiang River east of Renmin Nan Lu. Several bike-riding female dou hua sellers share the territory, parking one at a time near the the tea garden's entrance, making the rounds shouting their douhua come-on, kicking back for half an hour or so, and then making another effort to rustle up business before hopping on their bikes and moving elsewhere. Within 15 minutes the next seller arrives.
Dou hua is completely personalize-able. I ordered one for Dave and I to share, and after the vendor scooped a bean curd cloud from her plastic bucket and slid it into a paper bowl, answered "yes" to ground Sichuan peppercorns, la jiao (chili flakes in oil), chopped scallion greens, chopped preserved vegetable, black vinegar, soy sauce, and white sugar (just a wee bit). I declined MSG. (I would have ordered cold noodles too but we'd just eaten lunch.)
I suppose that for those not fond of bean curd dou hua might seem a strange and unappetizing snack. All I can say is that the bean curd in Sichuan is delicious (as is the bean curd in Malaysia) -- mildly earthy and well, beany in a way that bean curd made in large factories never can be. It's a fantastic flavor carrier, in this case a vehicle for ma-la (hot and numbing), sour, salty, and sweet.
I find almost anything with a custard-like texture to be comforting and the thing about dou hua is that even though it's served hot it's a perfect warm-weather food (believe me, we had some balmy days, weather that made Malaysia seem downright cool, while in Chengdu). It's satisfying and energy-giving, but also quite light.The perfect thing to reverse the effects of heat so hot it sucks the strength right out of you.
Dou hua may just be one of the world's perfect foods.
It's also suited to cold weather, as we found last January.
An aside -- custardy dou hua is not to be confused with a firmer sort of dou hua with an almost cottage cheese-y texture that's usually available at kuai can ('quick eats') places and restaurants specializing in rice-steamed meat and other steamed dishes.
Kept warm in big bowls of hot water, the firmer version has a slightly sour-ish flavor -- not at all unpleasant -- crumbles wonderfully into rice, and is usually eaten with a heap of one or another type of chili-basd condiment: fermented black beans mixed with chili flakes in oil, salt, and chopped green onions, for instance, or a cooked almost Mexican salsa-like concoction made with fiery long green peppers.
Sadly, we missed out on the latter type of douhua this last trip -- something we'll be sure to make up for in spades on the next.