From fungus to noodles galore, this Chinese city has some of the country’s best (and spiciest!) eating.
China’s Sichuan Province is known around the world for its pungent and spicy cuisine. Thanks to the use of numbing huājiāo (Sichuan peppercorns), the region’s unique dishes have garnered popularity around the globe, even prompting UNESCO to designate Chengdu, the province’s capital, a city of gastronomy in 2011.
While Chengdu is famous for dishes like mapo tofu, the city of Chongqing, its southeastern neighbor, lays its claim to fame for hotpot. In this dish, a giant vat of swirling broth is loading with chili peppers and hot oil. Raw meat and vegetables are cooked in the simmering pot. Chongqing is easily the country’s hotpot capital, with an estimate of more than 30,000 restaurants dedicated to the dish, but the city has countless other dishes.
Snack Oil Tea (Yóuchá)
As common as coffee in the U.S., Chongqing natives love this steaming hot porridge-like dish in the morning. The name is somewhat misleading, as the actual dish consists of fragrant, warm oil with puffed rice ground to mush. It’s usually topped with fragrant green onions and fried soybeans.
Sweet Rice Balls (Tang Yuan)
This popular Chinese dessert can be found throughout the country but is especially common during the holidays like Lantern Festival and Winter Solstice Festival. To make it, glutinous rice flour is mixed with water to form balls, which are then cooked in water or sweet syrup. Tang yuan are sometimes filled with black sesame, red bean paste, or even chocolate.
Pickled Cabbage Head (Zha Cai)
Literally meaning “pressed vegetable,” zha cai is a pickled dish made with the stem of a mustard plant that is native to Chongqing. The salty, knobby tuber is preserved in a pungent mix of chilies and other spices.
Kung Pao Tofu (Gong Bao Dou Fu)
While you may be familiar with the syrupy sweet takeout version of Kung Pao chicken, Chongqing’s version of this classic is loaded with the region’s famous hot dried chilies, tons of crunchy peanuts, and a generous kick of vinegar and garlic. Try the dish made with tofu, which is usually coated in cornstarch before frying to give it an extra crunch.
Wood Ear Fungus Skewer (Liangban Mu'er)
While the words “fungus” might be off-putting to most Westerners, wood ear fungus is closely related to a mushroom, albeit with a more cartilaginous texture. The crunchy wood ears are often served as a base for a simple salad appetizer but are sold skewering and marinated in a blend of spices and oil—an ideal grab-and-go snack.
Little Breakfast Noodles (Xiaomian)
If you don’t eat noodles for breakfast in Chongqing, have you really eaten? As ubiquitous as, say, a daily croissant in Paris, a bowl of Chongqing’s xiaomian—literally “little noodles”—consists of the hand-pulled wheat noodles in a pungent, meaty broth loaded with ma la from the addition of Sichuan peppercorns. From there, the dish can be topped with everything from red chili oil and ground meat to “eagle beak pea,” or ying zui dou, a chickpea-like legume.
Sichuan Boiled Fish (Shui Zhu Yu)
While the name of this dish literally translates to “water-boiled fish,” the spicy, savory broth is anything but watery. Now a popular dish throughout China, Sichuan boiled fish typically consists of a whole fish (often carp or catfish) boiled in a broth loaded with Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies.
Cold Mung Bean Noodles (Liangfen)
A refreshing dish in Chongqing’s sometimes oppressive heat and humidity, liangfen are strips of cold cornstarch-based strips resembling noodles. Topped with seasonings like soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic, the dish can be found throughout China, especially in Lanzhou where it’s sometimes served stir-fried.
Hot-and-Sour Sweet Potato Noodles (Suan la Fen)
Just 5 RMB (about 75 cents) will get you a piping-hot bowl of suan la fen, or hot-and-sour sweet potato noodles. The noodles are served in a bowl of bone stock (typically pork or chicken) and come seasoned with crispy fried garlic, chili oil, peanuts, chopped green onions, and minced pork.
Fish Stew With Pickled Mustard Greens (Suan Cai Yu)
Similar to shui zhu yu, suan cai yu is a lesser-known Sichuan dish that consists of fish boiled in a hot-and-sour broth with kicky pickled greens, often mustard greens or sometimes cabbage. It’s usually made with a mild white fish, which absorbs much of its flavor from the pungent vegetables.
Pork Dumplings in Spicy Sauce (Hong You Chao Sou)
Often simply called “red-oil wontons,” this classic Sichuan snack consists of hearty wontons with a silky, pork-based filling. The wontons are boiled before being bathed in a warming sauce of chili oil and black vinegar. (Fun fact: “chao sou” literally translates to “folded arms,” referencing how the wonton is folded once the filling is added.)
Dry Fried Chicken (La Zi Ji)
This addictive chicken dish is among the spiciest you’ll find in Chongqing. In the traditional preparation, a whole chicken is chopped (bones and all), before being marinated and then fried alongside loads of dried peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and ginger. Many preparations include sliced scallions as well. On American menus, you’ll often see this called “Chongqing chicken.”