What Brian Ate In…Chongqing, China

Chongqing is one of only 5 city/states in China (think Washington DC) and has a population of 30 million people. This buzzing metropolis is the site where the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers join and the starting place for the famous Three Rivers Gorge tour. Mountains tower over the skyscrapers to provide great views from either vantage point. The best part is that within an hour you are in the countryside exploring the trails, caves, waterfalls and ancient villages of the many mountain ranges that surround the city in every direction. But enough of all that, let’s talk about food…

1. Kou Rou, BBQ Meat

This city, like a lot of places in China, is filled with street-side stalls offering everything from bacon to beef lung ready to be thrown over the fire (literally). We were hungry from walking around in the rain so I chose a handful of delicious looking items and 15 mins later they arrived on the sidewalk table covered in a spicy chili sauce and ready to devour. The best part is that these stalls are open late into the night.

2. Huo Guo, Hotpot

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Hotpot, but Chongqing is famous for this spicy soup that you use to cook your raw meat and vegetables on your table. Now that this is becoming more of a staple for me, I’m beginning to realize how important the ingredients are. You’ll notice the fresh slices of beef rolled nicely on the plate that you can cook to your likeness. You’ll also notice the bowl of sauce I made by choosing from over 30 seasonings, oils and pastes which evolves throughout the meal by being dipped in to. Remembering all this makes me forget about the numb tongue and never-ending sweat that rolled off my forehead while enjoying it.

3. Guan Guan Fan, Claypot Rice

Think fried rice, but instead of being fried in a wok it’s baked in a clay pot over fire. Then it’s topped with your choice of spicy meat. The best part is the bit of rice that gets charred to the clay on the inside of the bowl.

4. Dim Sum and Dumplings

One day while exploring the city, we stumbled upon an entire food center specializing in every kind of dumpling or piece of dim sum you could imagine. We saw armies wrapping xiao long bao, aunties steaming baskets of bao, and uncles soaking duck tongues or potato slices in hot spicy oil. I could post dozens of pics of this place alone! But perhaps the most interesting were these colorful dumplings, each filled with their own ingredients…I think I had about 2 dozen of them.

5. Ma Hua, Local Crackers

I saw loads of this popular snack while visiting the old-town. They are basically flavored dough twisted and fried until crunchy. The interesting thing is that they come in a variety of flavors. Without knowing that, I picked up a few handfuls of them and threw them in a bag. Later when I wanted a snack I popped one in my mouth and I was pleasantly surprised at its chocolate flavor. The next minute I tried one that started numbing my tongue and reminding me of spicy hotpot.

What Brian Ate In…LeShan, China

When most people visit LeShan, they are most likely there to see the giant 3000 year old buddah carved into a cliff face standing over 200 feet tall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really impressive and definitely worth the trip. But of course, for me a place is always defined by it’s food. So here were my favorite eats in this small Chinese city.

1. Kao Ya, Roast Duck

This is the most famous food in LeShan and it’s certainly not hard to find. You see it everywhere, piled on street carts or hanging on hooks under light bulbs. No matter where you get it, it’s sure to be delicious. It’s sweet and crispy skin protects the juices in the meat which makes for a flavorful, moist and crispy bite all at the same time.

2. Yang Mei, Chinese-Style Cherry

This fruit is probably most similar to a typical cherry, hence the title I gave it. However, in China it’s just called Yang Mei and it’s a very moist and tasty fruit. If your lucky it’s sweet, and if you aren’t then it can be slightly sour. Despite what it looks like, you just pop the whole thing in your mouth and then spit out the pit.

3. Bao Zi, Bread-like Dumpling

I freakin love Bao Zi. It’s one of my favorite foods in China and I get it everywhere I go; this will not be the last time you see me write about it. Bao Zi is a dumpling, but it’s not made from your typical noodle-like casing. Instead, it’s a flour-based dough that is filled with goodness and then steamed. You can get them filled with any assortment of ingredients: savory, salty, sweet, meat, vegetables, eggs, you name it. Therefore, you need to order a lot of them.

4. Ji Xin, Chicken Hearts

In China, they use the entire animal. When walking down the street you’ll find food carts and shops full of all kinds of animal parts that you’ve never seen before…well, at least if you’re a foreigner. It’s not a bad thing, it just means that there is no waste and the internal organs and items can actually be quite good for you. I decided to grab something a bit more manageable than coagulated blood or a charred lung. I went for a skewer of chicken hearts. They were actually quite good and tasted, not surprisingly, like chicken!

5. Pastries

Just before my trip to LeShan, I visited the most famous Chinese pastry shop in the city of Chengdu. They probably have about 50 different sweets to choose from, with choices that include sweet custard, fried dough, or sweet green or red beans. To be honest, the assortment is far more comprehensive than your typical Western bakery and the flavors are far more diverse. The item pictured is layers of flaky pastry, sweet cream, dough, and raisins. Complex yet simply delicious.

Chengdu’s Antique Market

Chengdu is a great place to visit if you know a local, but if you find yourself wandering the city on your own you might find it a bit sterile and, well, boring. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of sites to see in this city, and of course the food is simply incredible. But the chilled population who seem to spend their time drinking tea and playing Mahjong instead of work contribute to the overall lack of excitement in the city. Personally, I love Chengdu for this reason, and my favorite place to see something interesting while experiencing the true sediment of the city is at the Antique Market.

Situated along the shores of the river, the Chengdu Antique Market offer many things besides fascinating treasures sprawled on sidewalks, blankets and tables. Below is a photo summary of what you’ll see…

A typical booth at the market.

Paintings lined up along the riverbank.

A collection of carved stamps.

A painter starting a new piece of work.

Some locals showing off their puppy attire.

Antique Books

Someone getting their ear cleaned.

Interesting Carved Blocks

What Brian Ate In… Chengdu, China

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province known for it’s spicy food and strong flavors. But it’s not just spicy food that caught my attention; a number of unique delicacies were on display through the streets and alleyways of this city that has some unique charm if you take the time to find it. Here are some of the most memorable dishes I ate while I was there.

1. Huo Guo, hotpot

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. Hotpot consists of a large boiling pot of soup (generally very spicy) served with an array of raw meats and vegetables. You then proceed to cook the raw ingredients in the boiling soup and dip it in a sauce that you have concocted with some provided ingredients. It sounds simple, but a good hotpot has a very intense flavor, which after an hour or two will make a guy like me sweat and have a burning mouth. One thing I noticed is that the spice in Sichuan doesn’t only give a traditional burn, but the hua jiang (flower pepper) also has a numbing effect on your tongue. Locals believe that since Chengdu is a humid place, they need spicy hotpot to sweat and get the humidity out of the body. It also provides a way for family and friends to enjoy a bustling and exciting meal together.

I tried a few hotpots when visiting Chengdu, but the best was by far a place in the University district called Ba Shu Da Zhai Men. You can see from the pic that they don’t go easy on peppers so make sure you order plenty of cold coconut milk to calm the mouth.

2. Rabbit Head

Yep, that’s a rabbit head. Stew that puppy in some spicy sauce for a while, split it half, and eat whatever meat is left. The cheek meat is fairly normal and actually quite nice. However, scooping out the brain with your finger and then eating it feels a bit more barbaric. The best part is that you get a great anatomy lesson in how a jaw works if you’re not too embarrassed to play with your food when after you are finished.

3. Pig Brain

Staying on track with some more weird eats, pig brain is also a common dish here. There isn’t really much to say about it; it’s a brain in a bowl served with spicy sauce and some fresh seasonings. It didn’t actually taste bad at all, but the fact that it looks like a brain and it’s texture is, well, brain-like make it a little difficult to swallow.

4. Mao Cai with Fen, Mini Hotpot with Rice Noodles

Mao Cai is what I call a small noodle dish, but if I said that to a local I would get yelled out while they then try to explain that Fen isn’t noodles at all but can’t explain why in a way that convinces me to understand. Fen are basically rice noodles, and they are delicious and also luckily found in many local dishes. Mao Cai is a dish that takes a number of chosen ingredients and cooked together with a spicy sauce over fen. Essentially it’s a mini version of hotpot with more convenience and all the punch.

5. Street Snacks

The best part about traveling is exploring a city by the food that you find on the street. Chengdu is certainly no exception. I can’t even tell you everything I tried, so the point here is to just go and try everything you can!

This one time I was the first foreigner in a restaurant.

I can’t tell you where I was. I mean, I was somewhere in the Qinghai Province of China. It borders Tibet and is an area that isn’t quite developing along with the rest of China. People farming without tools and living in huts within large expanses of land unused and uninhabited. It’s home to China’s largest lake and huge mountain ranges, but in other areas has endless views of the brown high desert.

One day we were cycling through a rather unattractive area. If you were in a car you could have stepped on the gas without turning your wheel for probably an hour and never leave the road or see another car. In the distance, we could see what looked like a city approaching but as we got closer realized it was just some industrial smokestacks. However, it was lunchtime and we were hungry so assumed there must be something to eat in the area and pressed on. After exiting the main road we made our way toward the bottom of the smokestacks along a bumpy dirt road. Large empty salt puddles, crusted in white, were being ran over by semi-trucks full of what we later found out were the output of the potassium mine.

The small row of ancient and blackened shops that lined the street were only there to supply the mine workers with somewhere to go. I don’t think anyone lived here. But luckily there was a restaurant so we walked in and sat down. The cheerful man recommended some of his favorite dishes and our table proceeded to order lunch while, as usual, I glazed over with all the Chinese speaking. The food was surprisingly good and the place itself actually had quite a bit of charm considering the surroundings.

After we finished, a conversation had started between the owner and someone in my group in Chinese and suddenly I was told that I was the first Lao Wai (foreigner, or white person) to ever eat in the restaurant. We proceeded to take some photos together and laugh without understanding what each other was saying. I’m pretty sure I deserve to be framed on the wall as I can guarantee there will never be another foreigner ever to visit that place.

What Brian Ate In… Xi’an, China

A lot of things surprised me about Xian’s cuisine, which never failed to disappoint throughout my week in China’s Shaanxi Province. I think I went the first few days without having any rice at all! Xian people love their noodles and doughs, and this was very apparent as I tried as much food as possible. The other amazing thing is that great food is cheap. If you ever make a trip to Xi’an, make sure you try some of my favorites:

1. Rou Jia Mo, meat sandwich

For those of you that know me well, you shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorites was the Chinese equivalent of a hamburger. In fact, you could argue that the American hamburger is the equivalent of Rou Jia Mo considering the fact that it dates back to many years BC. The meat, which I think is usually pork, is stewed for hours in many spices and then shredded. If you find a good one, it will be served in a freshly toasted slice of flatbread and literally melts in your mouth. I had at least one of these a day.

2. Kou Rou, BBQ

Xi’an is filled with just about anything you can imagine roasting on a stick. Meat, animals parts, vegetables, tofu, you can find it all. One evening I was led by some friends down a random alley in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, in fact I don’t think I could find it again if I tried. The ally ended with a small restaurant with a few tables and women walking around with handfuls of things on sticks. We told them how much we wanted and kept the sticks on the table, then at the end we were charged for each stick.

3. Mian Mian Mian, noodles, noodles, noodles

It’s simple, I love noodles. And since noodles are such a staple in Xi’an, there is no shortage of different noodle dishes. From cold noodle dishes sold on the street, to hand pulled noodles by an old auntie, to noodles that are literally many meters long, you can get just about anything. My favorite was a busy place introduced to me by some locals. The noodles came in a big bowl along with many small side dishes that you added to the large bowl also filled with spicy soup. You could even order extra side dishes to refill!

4. Bing Feng, Ice Peak Soda

Bing Feng, directly translated as Ice Peak, is an orange soda made and bottled in Xi’an. In fact, I haven’t seen it anywhere else in my China travels. Think orange Fanta, but really cool because it’s made locally.

5. Yang Rou Pao Mo, Lamb Stew with Breadcrumbs

This is a truly traditional meal that many people told me I must try. Several places in the Muslim Quarter serve it well, so I walked in to a random stall and ordered a bowl. I was first served with a bowl filled with bread, so I slowly started pulling it apart into small pieces (I was also told it was very important to get them as small as you can). I assumed they would bring me the stew when it was ready, but in reality they were waiting for me to finish crumbing the bread! So about 30 minutes later when my perfectionist tendencies were content, they finally served me the lamb stew. I topped it with my finely crumbed bread and dug in.

Exploring Yunnan, China

China has become an endless, uncheckable box for me. The more I visit, the more I hear about another amazing place I need to see. Yunnan was my most recent destination and it most certainly did not disappoint. Here are the highlights of my 5 days in Yunnan.

Er Hai Lake & Jin Suo Island

After spending a quick night in Kunming, we took a (very cold and unheated) bus ride to a giant lake called Er Hai. We had booked a hotel on the south edge of the island, and since it was off-season the boat wouldn’t take us directly to our place which required us to drag our bags along a dirt trail through the town to our guesthouse. Everything about this island is exactly what you want to find when traveling. There are no cars. Twisting walkways and sidewalks wind through the small village and quickly lead you to the shorelines and forest that surround. Food consists of the catch of the day along with locally grown vegetables which included tree bark and clear bulbs from a water plant. It really is a place that time has forgotten, and of course the views and surroundings are something that can’t be missed.


Directly across the lake from the island is the ancient town of Dali, a place that seems to be popular with Chinese hippies. We spent the afternoon roaming through the streets, visiting shops, watching artists and of course eating as much as we could. Cured and dried pig leg and local sausage were among many of the specialties that we had.

Li Jiang

Although Li Jiang is a bit more touristy than the previous two spots, it is also the most spectacular. It’s main streets are crowded with people and fairly ambiguous shopfronts, but it is truly easy to escape all of that by wandering down the less popular paths. The old town is built around a large hill that rises above and provides amazing view of the town below along with Snow Mountain towering above at nearly 6000 meters (18,000 feet). We easily spent 2 days roaming the streets, hills and town taking pictures and getting lost. This is also where I rang in the 2013 new year. One thing to keep in mind is that the city ordinance that requires bars to close at 11:30pm each night exists even on December 31st! However, if you meet the right people they will show you some places behind the scenes that stay open.

The Tibetan Trail and Lashi Lake by Horseback

One of the many tours you can take from Li Jiang is a trip to Lashi lake. Here, you can hop on the back of the horse and get a taste of what people did years ago when traveling to Tibet. We chose the “difficult” route which takes you up and down a mountain through small villages, burial grounds and forests near the lake. I had never actually ridden a horse before and thought it was a pretty good experience! We stopped in one of the villages for lunch and some tea tasting made locally. Although this is part of the “tour” it was actually really good. One of our group members asked if it would be possible to live in the village, but we were told outsiders are not welcome as it is truly a self-sustained community meaning everyone shares their goods and services among the other villagers. We then took a boat ride on the lake which seemed shallow due to high growing plants but in reality was several meters deep. The surroundings make for a nice afternoon outside of the city.