The Lava Flavor of Chongqing Food
Can you believe I went over a year without telling you about the delicious Chongqing food I have been enjoying throughout my Peace Corps service?!
So first, just recently, I went to Chengdu to teach the new batch of China volunteers a lesson on health. After telling the Peace Corps Medical Office about my journey to better health, they invited me to do a session. Of course, I showed them47-poundound weight loss picture, and taught them about what to do and what not to do to keep their bodies on point during their 2 years in China. I showed them pictures of local produce that we don’t have in the US. I told them to eat right, hold back on over consuming noodles, bread, rice, sugar and essentially any street food or whole in the wall restaurant (which, let’s be honest is the best). So I preached hard about eating healthy, staying fit, and watching out for the dreaded China gutter oil.
I’m such a liar. I mean. Not entirely, but I told them about staying healthy when sometimes, I’m not the best example when it comes to eating healthy. Just the other day, I was Skyping with my parents and destroying 15 Chicken Nuggets in the process. I so have my days where I get the craving for 6 plates of fries and a tub of ketchup, seek out huge platters of tacos, or spend 46 RMB on a Burger King burger, because, hey, Posh Corp yo. (46 RMB equals like less than $8 by the way). But I stay healthy and don’t eat too much of this crap. Too much of anything is not good for you.
Chongqing food is cheaper than you would believe, and if I were living off an American salary, eating in China would be insanely cheap, and life would be pretty sweet. But I would absolutely gain all 47 pounds back. I’m going to tell you about and show some of my favorite local Chongqing foods that I grub down on when Chicken and Vegetables are boring me. Local food is by far, cheaper than any foreign chain restaurant that can be found in China.
First and foremost, the Chongqing municipality is known for its incredible spicy dishes in which they use a few different kinds of spicy pepper. They use spicy in pretty much everything, and you can’t go too many places in Chongqing where spicy is not added in some form. Sometimes it’s so spicy, I can’t even enjoy it. Like, when I’m eating I think “God, it’s so delicious, but this must be what lava tastes like.”
Generally, Chonqing food is eaten in the summer to balance your body temperature. Chinese believe that eating spicy food in hot weather balances your body temperature, making you sweat, therefore cooling you off.
Most of their spicy peppers are just like ours, we have one that looks similar to a Pueblo Chiles, and then you got the small green and red chili peppers that are no bigger than your finger and are hot as hell. But I can guarantee, most people still living in the states don’t know this next one.
This pepper is a Sichuan Pepper known as Hua Jiao. Their small like peppercorns, and annoying little jerks. Hua Jiao is commonly referred to as the numbing pepper. It is added to rather enhance the spiciness, but not meant to be eaten directly. However, people do ground the pepper into powder and mix it into most noodle dishes or dipping sauces for hot pot. So when you do taste the magnificent flavor of the Hua Jiao, it will feel spicy and just a little numb. If you chomp down on one or two of those little peppers, it’ll be like you’re coming off of a Novocain fix.
Keep in mind, that nearly every food here in Chongqing that I eat is all spicy and the spiciest food I’ve eaten in my life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally eaten a Hua Jiao pepper and cursed furiously under my breath.
So, I won’t keep you waiting, here are my Chongqing food Faves!
The first one, and one of my favorites is Liang Mian, or cold noodles. I can easily find my favorite lady rolling her cart around the nearby square with a microphone shrieking advertisements for her cold noodles. I ask her how much it is, just a small 5 RMB for a little bowl. A mere $0.82. Liang Mian is a combination of cold noodles, salt, MSG, sugar, soy nuts, sesame oil, vinegar, seaweed, a dash of pickled vegetables, hua jiao, red pepper, and green onion. Looks like this:
The next one I adore so much is called Chao Shou. A larger bowl is about 9 RMB ($1.41). It’s similar to that wonton soup you gobble up in your local Chinese restaurant in the US. But this one is spicy and far tastier. In the bowl, you got your broth, of course, pork stuffed wontons, water spinach, MSG, salt, spicy red pepper, hua jiao, and green onion. I even drink them both afterward.
The next one Hot Pot, probably what Chongqing is most known for. There are ongoing debates about whether Sichuan, Guizhou, or Chongqing have the best hot pot – No comment. One time, my brother took me to eat hot pot in downtown Chongqing city. We arrived there just in time for the server to bring us out a wok with a solidified chunk of what would soon be our dinner. She put the heat on ultra-flamethrower, the solid chunk began to ooze, and I immediately saw just how much oil was in this hot pot. My mouth was watering and I was disgusted all at once. It wasn’t long before the solid became a liquid and you could see just what hot pot was made of: crap ton of oil, crap ton of anything spicy that was ever made in the world. Choose your desired meats, veggies, dumplings, and duck blood and boil away. Depending on how many items you plan to boil, your meal could cost anywhere from 100-300 RMB ($16-$50). The more people the better.
My next one is called Shao Kao. The street BBQ of China. They pop up everywhere over summer. Especially outside of local bars looking to welcome the drunk people. Some little Shao Kao stops have outdoors dining where you can sit for hours drinking and playing the game of “who’s going to vomit in the bushes first.” Shao kao is great because you can go up, grab a tray and choose from a variety of vegetables, meats, and other things to be individually cooked to your liking. After they BBQ, they add oil, MSG, salt, pickled veggies, hua jiao, spicy red pepper, give it a quick mix and then serve. I love getting mine with quail eggs, cilantro, green onion, water spinach, eggplant, and mushroom. Altogether is cost about 19 RMB ($2.98).
I obviously can’t skip dessert. This one is called Liang Gao, or Cold Cake. Usually, it’s eaten in the summer when it particularly hot. I’m still not entirely sure how they make it. I know it is made of the rice flour and molded into something that resembles a breast implant, but I still don’t know the method. I go to visit the sweet old lady outside my house, who pulls a cart around welcoming the kids of all ages to indulge in this sweet treat. I ask her for the cold cake, she places it in a small plastic dish and then pours a semi-thick brown sugar syrup on top, then stabs the center with a plastic spoon. She and I talk for the next several minutes as I devour each morsel of sweetness. She stops me periodically to ask if I need more syrup (like please, lady, give me that whole God damn bottle, I don’t even need this cake). I seriously love those 7 minutes. I do not look forward to her being gone from me this winter. Liang Gao is a small 5 RMB ($0.78) for 7 minutes of heaven. So I am stocking up for winter.
So, there you have it! If you ever visit Chongqing, give all of these a try! You won’t regret it! I mean, your colon might, but whatever! So kidding.