Chengdu Market Report: Spring in the Land of Abundance | Jordan Porter
Published May 27, 2019, Updated Jun 01, 2023
Farmed and Foraged
All talk of sensational spices—Sichuan pepper and mounds of chilis—aside, there are a lot of other factors that make Sichuan food very special. There’s the rambunctious, jovial air of celebration that turns meals into parties; there’s deep umami flavors and ferments brewing in every home; and there’s this great diversity of ingredients and techniques underneath it all. But to me, what makes Sichuan food really amazing is its focus on freshness and reliance on local ingredients, which is on ample view in a springtime Chengdu market.
While the whole world is talking about eating local, and farm-to-table eating, the abundant agriculture of the Sichuan basin makes Chengdu effectively self-sufficient in food production. This is why it’s called Tianfu, or the land of abundance. Chengdu has fresh produce 12 months a year, and the markets have a beautiful, ever-changing cast of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Certain ingredients, like Chinese toon leaves or fresh Sichuan peppercorns, are available only for a few weeks. But all ingredients rotate in and out of season, and their availability changes based on the time of year. Straight up, people eat seasonally because it’s cheaper, and it tastes better.
In Chengdu, most families shop daily to get the freshest produce possible. They keep their kitchens stocked full of dry ingredients, sauces, oils and rice, but meats, vegetables and fruits are bought everyday to ensure maximum freshness. Because of this, there are markets in every neighborhood. Some are indoor, multistory complexes, and others (though fewer now) are sprawling sets of tables and tarps strewn along the streets outdoors. Beyond the point of purchase for food itself, these markets also serve an important social role, especially for the neighborhood grannies who head there to get first pick, first thing every morning.
The local market is always abuzz with energy. Patrons seem to be less committed to particular vendors than to the look of the produce itself, often floating around to multiple stalls before landing on the one that looks freshest. While one may have the best spinach, another may offer the best chilis. They probably aren’t all at one stall!
The search for freshness extends beyond the markets too—it is a principle ingrained in people’s ideas about food here. This is best understood through the nongjiale, or Happy Farmer’s Inn, phenomenon that started in Sichuan in the 1990s. Basically, middle-class city dwellers all flee the gray, urban heat in search of freshness, especially during the summer months. Where do they go? To farmers’ homes in the rich agricultural lands that surround the city. These “inns” usually grow food and raise their own meat and are often semi-converted to receive guests.
People spend the day in classic Sichuanese fashion, playing majiang, taking naps, smoking smokes and generally chilling, but it’s all based around the pursuit of freshness and getting closer to your food sources. Most vegetables (at the legit places) will be sourced from the farmer’s garden or those in the neighborhood, and free-range chicken, ducks and fish are usually killed onsite. Areas vary greatly in what they offer, some focusing more on fruit, where people will play cards and gamble under blossoms or peach and loquat trees, while farther away into the hills many farmers forage wild greens and bamboo to supplement their garden’s supplies.
Right now, it’s the first week of May and Chengdu markets are bursting with spring vegetables both farmed and foraged. Baby bamboo shoots and herbal fish mint leaves (Houttuynia cordata) grace almost every stall, but the real representative of the season is chun ya（春芽), leaves of the Chinese toon tree, which have a pleasantly oniony taste. They appear in April when the weather turns warm and last for around a month, their name effectively meaning spring buds. There are also foraged dandelions and wild purslane as well as fennel and wrinkled giant hyssop leaves. Lily buds and chrysanthemum leaves wait to be taken home and fried like vegetables.
Amaranth adds a splash of purple to the new leafy greens, and fava beans (or broad beans, depending where you’re from) are plentiful. They are eaten fresh in the springtime, often tossed in a chili oil salad with fish mint leaves, but later in the summer they will be fermented and become the base for doubanjiang (chili bean paste).
It doesn’t get as much love in recipes, but the fruit in Chengdu is incredible. While there is still plenty of citrus hanging around from the winter, springtime brings the amazing flavors of Chinese sour cherries, juicy loquats and purple bayberries. Cherries and bayberries are only in season for a few weeks, so they are gorged upon when available. And while the countryside east of Chengdu is famous for its fruit, trees that are planted around the city bear their fruit for the masses. Many apartment complex courtyards are ripe with the yellow-orange of loquat fruits, and many a white shirt has been ruined by the juice of a falling mulberry.
As the spring progresses, new fruits and vegetables come into season, and new seasonal favorites steal the spotlight from the chunya and bamboo shoots of the earlier spring. The kitchens of the city abide by the rhythm of the seasons, and recipes change and adapt reflecting what is available—that is, what is fresh and delicious. Sometimes you blink, and the season for your favorite ingredient is gone, but that only makes you yearn more for it next year. The rhythm is what makes it special.
Jordan Porter is the founder of Chengdu Food Tours and a contributor to this blog as well as other publications. All photos above are by him (please do not borrow without attribution). Contact Jordan for set itineraries or custom tours of Chengdu and the Sichuan countryside.
Note from Taylor: After editing this piece by Jordan in mid-May, I went straight to my local Asian market to see which of these seasonal vegetables I could source in Nashville. We don’t have the selection of larger cities, but even here these intriguing veggies are sometimes available. I was able to lay my hands on bamboo shoots (though unfortunately they were a bit past their prime by the time I got there), dandelion greens and purple-streaked amaranth greens. I was most excited to find fresh fava beans in their pods, since fava beans are integral to Sichuan food as the bean in Pixian chili bean paste. Those are fermented fava beans, but next up on the blog will be my experiment cooking fresh fava beans Sichuan-style.
Check out the recipe for fresh Sichuan Fava Bean and Radish Noodle Salad!