Cooking at home in Chengdu

I have spent a total of four months this past year overseas: in Sydney (early 2012), Oslo (mid-2012) and then London (just recently) – these travels bring to mind how fortunate we are in Chengdu with such easy access to good fresh seasonal food. I won’t say ‘cheap’ – to my surprise, both bananas and ice-cream are cheaper in London than in Chengdu – although food here is affordable.

When living in a great food city like Chengdu, with its vast and ever-changing restaurant options, it is easy to overlook the opportunities for cooking at home in China. Our city offers an array of seasonal ingredients that should excite all you 吃货 chi1huo4 (‘foodies’) out there. See my suggestions for a Winter’s day in Chengdu below:

In Australia we normally prefer a green variety of apple but in Chengdu I have enjoyed a number of red varieties as well. Wash and slice (peel the skin if you prefer – I usually take off half the skin, in a nod to the Chinese distrust of the skin of fruit) and throw into a pot with a small amount of water over a low heat. Add cumquats cut in half. The sugar options in Chengdu are multitudinous – try a cup of red sugar from the local market. Add a cinnamon stick and a few Xin Jiang sultanas. Stew for at least half an hour – the fruit should be quite soft. Serve warm and eat with cream and/or yoghurt.

Yoghurt in bottles
Chengdu does yoghurt the old-fashioned way, in glass bottles. Some Hongqi supermarkets have yoghurt in small bottles for about 4 RMB each. You get a credit of 1 RMB when you return the empty bottle. Beware: sugar is normally added to yoghurt in China. If you want natural yoghurt, you can buy a tasty version made from cows milk, take-away, from many of the Tibetan restaurants in 武侯祠区 Wu Hou Ci Qu (Wu Hou Ci District).

Puffed rice and corn is sold on the street in various locations around the city. If you want more control over quality (and want to avoid the additives in the packet variety from Carrefour) you can make your own 粥 zhou (rice porridge) in the rice cooker. Add banana or other fruit in season, and local honey.

There are plenty of bread options available now in the supermarket, but why not make your own bread at home? Dry yeast is available from the supermarkets for making 油条 youtiao (breadsticks). Why not 棍子面包 gunzi mianbao (baguettes)?

Try dried corn noodles, an excellent substitute for spaghetti. They need to be cooked for about ten minutes (for some reason the packet that I buy says cook them for 20 minutes!) Drain noodles then add them back to the saucepan with a pat of butter.

The pasta sauce
I first blanch some sliced zucchini. Add oil to a wok and fry some sliced mushrooms, then brown the zucchini a little and put the vegetables aside. Cook chopped tomatoes with a little oil (mix of fresh and tinned is okay), add minced garlic, and tomato paste, then add the mushrooms and zucchini back and allow to simmer for a good 20 minutes. Grate some tasty cheese.

Individual quail egg salads
Put the eggs on to boil. (You can use a variety of small eggs, Chengdu has many options – or you could buy them already cooked.) Fry some capers in olive oil. Toss together a mixed leaf salad, add dressing of balsamic vinegar and mustard, shaved cheddar cheese, fried capers and raw red onion. Take out the cooked yolks and mix them with balsamic vinegar, minced garlic and olive oil. Top the green salad with quail eggs sliced in half, with the yolk mixture spooned back into the cooked egg whites. Serve in small rice bowls, one for each person.

In this recipe you start by roasting butternut pumpkin pieces with dried herbs in an oven until well-cooked. While that is happening, put shaved ginger in a heavy saucepan with a little water and cook over a low heat until caramelised. Add the roasted pumpkin and caramelised ginger to a heavy pot with some stock and cook until flavours are well mixed. When the soup has cooled put it in a blender for a smooth and tasty pumpkin soup. Fry up some chopped leek in olive oil. Add a splash of wine and a pat of butter and reduce over a low flame. Serve soup with the reduced leek mixture dobbed on top. Add some chopped coriander as a garnish.

For sweets you can make an apple crumble. Crush some biscuits as a quick alternative to making your own ‘crumble’ from scratch (it is getting late, after all). Pre-cook chopped apple for 20 minutes or so, then pour into an oven proof dish. Add a packet of frozen berries if none are available fresh at the market, and some spices (cinnamon stick, grated nutmeg). Add a couple of cups of red sugar and top with your crumble mixture. Bake for a long time, until the aroma is irresistible. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Most ingredients mentioned are available at the markets or in Chinese supermarkets (eg. yeast powder is available at Hongqi supermarkets in little 1.5 RMB sachets and dried corn noodles are available from the vegetarian supermarket in 蜀汉街 Shu Han Jie (Shuhan Street) in 武侯祠区 Wu Hou Ci Qu (Wu Hou Ci District). Look for cheap Chinese wine to cook with – you can get a cab sav for 20 RMB. Some ingredients will need a trip to Carrefour, or the new well-stocked 特色汇 Te Se Hui (Treat) supermarket at Raffles City, 人民南路四段 (Renmin South Road 4th section), near 省体育馆 Sheng Ti Yu Guan (Provincial Gymnasium) Metro Station on Line #1. For example, a range of balsamic vinegars, and capers, are now available at特色汇 Te Se Hui (Treat) supermarket. But does anyone know how to get clotted cream? BTW, all of the ingredients I use are gluten-free. 


David Brett worked for 35 years variously as a public servant, ministerial advisor, and economist. He was for several years a director in the economics unit of the global firm pwc. He was Economics Adviser to the Premier of New South Wales, and spent time on an Australian tribunal adjudicating urban water prices. From 2009-12 he taught economics. He now writes on economic and business topics for, as well as on Chinese language and culture. You can also find him on (where he writes the ‘Baby Blog’), on Twitter @dwbrett, and on Sina Weibo @柏大伟1951.
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