On a busy street in southwest Chengdu, buses and taxis idle in front of a red wall with imposing arched gateways. There is a ticket booth at one of these gates, and a few people wander in and out, visiting a temple honoring a military strategist of Sichuan’s ancient Shu kingdom. But most people pass this by and join the thick crowd of people next door pushing through a more cheerful gate, with a sloping tile roof and hanging red lanterns. Beyond the gate, two-story structures in the style of the Qing Dynasty line what in English is generally called “Jinli Snack Street.”
Red lanterns hang from the curving eaves, and second-story casement windows with elegant screens stand open, revealing dining rooms within. Everything here is constructed with the same light gray bricks. The shops along the street sell souvenirs—masks painted in the style of Sichuan opera, stuffed pandas, and postcards. But the restaurants, bars, and especially the snack shops are probably the biggest draw. This is reputed to be one of the best places to sample traditional Chengdu foods. So I came here to try spicy wontons, dandan noodles, and whatever else I could find.
Spicy Wontons at 坊洒煮
Peering through the door of a shop, I saw diners eating at a table, and a stairway at the back, which appeared to lead to one of the rooms with windows overlooking the street. Shelves along the wall displayed different kinds of baijiu, and paper cups filled with food sat on the counter.
I went in and stared up at the picture menu over the counter. When I began mumbling the menu’s Chinese name for the wonton dish, the lady behind the counter impatiently pushed a paper cup of wontons at me. “Douban Chaoshou!” she said.
The word “Douban” was confusing to me, since it is the name of one of China’s largest social networks. But in the context of this dish it refers to a fermented broad bean sauce, Doubanjiang. This is indeed a traditional food; the process of fermenting broad beans currently employed in Sichuan (see here) seems little changed from the process described in one of China’s oldest cookbooks (from the sixth century; see Xiang Ju Lin’s Slippery Noodles), starting with the cultivation of the fungus that carries out the fermentation. Doubanjiang is apparently one of Sichuan’s distinctive ingredients, like Sichuan peppercorns. It supposed to be spicy, but I suspect that it also contributes many flavors I have not learned to recognize.
I took my paper cup upstairs, where shelves with a moon-shaped portal divided the space into two dining rooms. Ink paintings evoking ancient times were hung on the walls, and illustrated scenes were carved in relief in the woodwork. This was a surprising pocket of quiet in the middle of the crush of tourists. The windows let in some of the sounds of the crowds in the street below, but there were only a few people quietly eating in this room.
The red sauce that pooled around the wontons was spicy and quite sour. The chili and vinegar were strong, and I was not able to pick out the contribution of the fermented beans. Nothing about the wontons, filled with pork, was surprising, but they were satisfying.
Dandan noodles (担担面)
I could not decipher the name of the next shop I went to, but it also had a convenient menu with pictures. Here I ordered Dandan noodles. They came topped with minced pork, chives, and crunchy beans that looked like chickpeas. Like burning noodles, these came with plenty of sesame oil, and plenty of spice. The flavor of the pork was more prominent in this dish than in burning noodles.
The inner courtyard
After eating, you can walk through the connected alleyways, where there are more tourist shops and shops selling various desserts. Eventually you will find a wide courtyard filled with bamboo tables with tea menus laid out. There is a pond at one side, straddled by a bridge with seats along the railings and lanterns hung from the eaves, and nearby a stage. At a booth by the stage, professional ear cleaners advertise their services by striking two chimes together. This place was crowded when I walked through, but its calm and languor seemed to have everyone on the verge of sleep. I could have stayed the night there.
Addendum—Zhong shuizhao (钟水饺) at坊洒煮
On a return trip, I had these spicy dumplings covered in chopped peanuts. Excellent.