During afternoon tea at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong, I told a friend that I had arrived by way of Chongqing.
“Ah. Chongqing’s time has come,” he said. It was a flattering comment, considering CQ, as it’s also called, isn’t as well known to Westerners as Chengdu, the seat of Sichuan province and Chongqing’s rival city.
Chengdu in recent years has cemented itself as an international destination for pandas and food. It prides itself as the civilized counterpart, with an updated metro system and English-friendly signage, to Chongqing’s brash intensity.
The real point of cultural contention between the two cities is food, of course,which reigns supreme in Sichuan. Chengdu is more accessible to foreigners, and its citizens’ emigration to far-flung locales has exported its modern cuisine around the globe. But travelers would be remiss to ignore Chongqing.
Mexico City has climbed the food ranks and become known for its relatively affordable Michelin restaurants; Copenhagen has staked out a space for innovative cuisine; and Tokyo has long been on everyone’s food map. When it comes to Chinese food, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hong Kong have been, for Westerners, the most culinarily prominent cities.
Chongqing is the best food city you don’t know about. It lies at the junction of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, a sprawling mountain city connected by a congested network of bridges. Its population dwarfs the size of Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago combined.
I have a Popo and Gong Gong (affectionate Chinese terms for grandmother and grandfather, respectively) who have lived in Chongqing for more than seven decades.
My trips to CQ, including my most recent visit in June, revolve almost entirely around meals. My mother and her Californian sensibilities have outgrown her old home, and she’s baffled by Popo’s obsession with food.
“It’s as if you only live to eat,” she chided Popo, who has nothing to say in defense. Because it’s true: As a 73-year-old CQ native, Popo lives to eat. I can’t help siding with her. How could you not, when you live in a city like this, where spice and smells ring the smog, where frying oil clings to porous shirts, where plastic stools outside tiny noodle shops are the loudest siren song.
Immediately upon landing, Popo, Gong Gong and my mother whisked me to Jiefangbei, CQ’s downtown center. We had our first meal, huo guo, the classic CQ feast, within one of Jiefangbei’s mega shopping malls.
Huo guo, or hot pot, is a giant vat of spices and oil strewn with generous handfuls of Sichuan peppercorns. Echang (goose intestines) are popular huo guo items, along with tripe, white cabbage and wood ear mushrooms. The blander the item, the better it lends itself to capturing the full flavors of the pot.
Huo guo is Chongqing’s emblematic dish. Like the city itself, it is fiery, delicious, communal and unapologetic in its boldness.
“How’s the spice level?” I asked Gong Gong. “It’s OK,” he said. “Average.” Just average. Meanwhile, I was sweating, blowing my nose and on the verge of tears. The effect of numbing spice leaves me in a state of delirium every time.
After a night’s sleep in Popo’s apartment, we hit the streets in search of xiao mian and suan la fen, two iconic CQ noodle dishes that can be found on any corner.
Xiao mian, which means “little noodle,” is simple in its perfection: a large bowl of wheat noodles, bright leaves of bok choy and a broth of distinctive Sichuan spices and chile oils. Xiao mian can be eaten any time of day, and it’s a frequent breakfast for morning commuters. The best part? It costs only 6 yuan, or 86 cents.
Suan la fen is a sour and spicy bowl of sweet potato noodles, topped with fried peanuts and zhacai (pickled vegetables) and sprinkled with coriander. Suan la fen is not as ma (numbing) as xiao mian, and it features a tangy, sippable broth.
The xiao mian dians, or shops, are the heartbeat of CQ, the nodes that everyday people will flock to for a comforting bowl of noodles even in 100-degree heat.
Food accosted us at every turn — every block, underground tunnel and bridge was lined with fruit sellers and vegetable hawkers. The cart vendor, with more than a dozen tubs of spices, oils and amenities, is a common feature of the CQ street.
Depending on what you order — pig ears, duck intestines or any variety of meat and tofu cuts — they expertly dress your selection with a combination of sauces. Street vendors in Chongqing don’t accept cash — a WeChat Wallet on your phone is enough to pay your way around town.
But CQ is difficult to navigate for foreigners. English is minimal, Google Maps doesn’t work, and local citizens can be aggressive and blunt.
At a train station, my mother and I stopped to ask whether we were to enter through the East or West entrance. “Whatever you want,” screamed the employee. On the flip side, the denizens of Chongqing are also incredibly generous and warm, and they love showing visitors the gems of their city.
So what makes CQ the best food city you’ve never heard of? For a city its size, it has somehow avoided the effects of globalization. It remains one of the most insulated food cultures for a major megalopolis.
In Hong Kong, it’s possible to find good Mexican and Peruvian cuisine; in Japan, the Italian food is some of the best in the world; and in Los Angeles, the Vietnamese pho is unparalleled.
In Chongqing, fried chicken has made slight incursions, and for the better off, other types of cuisine are accessible. But for the everyday person, the Popos and Gong Gongs of CQ, they eat only Chongqing-style flavors.
On my most recent trip, a family friend complained how it wasn’t possible to get anything but Chongqing food, how she was dying for something American. It boggled me. In a city like this, with a food culture this vibrant and proud and decadent, why would you want anything else?
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO CHONGQING, CHINA
From LAX, Hainan offers nonstop service to Chongqing. Restricted round-trip airfare from $1,140, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton Chongqing, 139 Zhongshan 3rd Road, Yuzhong Qu, Chongqing; 011-86-23-8903-9999. Doubles from $61 a night.
Westin Chongqing Liberation Square, 222 Xinhua Road, Jiefangbei ShangQuan, Yuzhong Qu, Chongqing; 011-86-23-6380-6666. Doubles from $125 a night.
Harbour Plaza Chongqing, Wuyi Road JieFangBei ShangQuan, Yuzhong Qu, Chongqing; 011-86-23-6370-0888. Doubles from $44 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Chongqing Lao Huo Guo, Guo Tai Plaza. Wusi Road, Jiefangbei ShangQuan, Yuzhong Qu, Chongqing. On the bottom floor of the Guo Tai mall; English service limited. A huo guomeal for four adults costs $25-$30. If you eat $40 worth of huo guo, you’ll need to be rolled home.
Wen Chuang Yuan, E Ling Zheng Jie, Chongqing. A hipster, English-friendly arts district. Plenty of young CQers model for WeiXin photos (the Chinese equivalent of Instagram). A meal of modern CQ cuisine costs about $7-$9.