Most tourists, domestic and international, go to Leshan (乐山) as a day trip from Chengdu (成都) to do one thing – see the Big Buddha. And while this is a pretty big Buddha (乐山大佛) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its also just a big statue.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a cool story about a monk who after seeing the violent currents of the converging rivers wreak havoc on passing boats wanted to carve a Buddha into the wall to watch over the passing sailors and their cargo, and inadvertently calmed these very waters by carving so much rock off the mountain that it changed the flow of the rivers. Under a tight budget, he also carved out his own eyes rather than hand over his funds to local gangsters.
Sichuan locals, however, all know Leshan and flock to it for something else – its food. And no trip to Leshan would be complete without sampling its famous cuisine. While Leshan is located about 150km southwest of Chengdu in the heart of Sichuan, its regional food is much different than that of Chengdu or nearby Chongqing.
In fact Chengdu is full of Leshan style restaurants that praise this regions cuisine, but everyone knows to get the true flavors you have to venture to the smaller towns, and the places where they were created.
First and foremost Leshan is famous for its beef restaurants, and in particular beef soup places know in Chinese as QiaoJiao NiuRou 跷脚牛肉. Rich, clear -that’s right non spicy – beef soups are made in huge pots at these restaurants which pepper the entire city. You order by the bowl and the type of beef or part of the cow you want in it – from thinly sliced raw beef that cooks in the hot soup, to the cow’s tongue, stomach, or even its penis. You can also order a variety of greens and cabbage that come served in the bowls of delicious soup. Each order comes with a side of ground chili powder and spices.
While this is the main dish at these places, they also serve up beef in a number of manners including, a personal favorite – coated in ground rice and spices, and steamed in bamboo steamers known as FenZheng Beef or 粉蒸牛肉.
Second only maybe to the QiaoJiao Beef, Leshan is famous for its once again non-spicy ‘sweet skin duck’ (TianPi Ya 甜皮鸭). Not like the Beijing Roast Duck at all, these ducks are roasted and served en masse, chopped into bone-in morsels with a sweet glaze and sesame seeds on the skin. Of course, this being Sichuan, you can still dip the duck pieces in chili powder but the spice is more of an option than an imperative.
BoBoJi (钵钵鸡), another dish home to Leshan, but found in adulterated forms throughout Sichuan and China, is not to be confused with Chuan Chuan (串串), despite the sticks and spicy broths they are cooked in. The cooking method is different, and so is the flavor, but most importantly the context is different. Pre-cooked skewers of veggies, chicken innards and organs are placed cold in bowls of spiced oiled soup on each table. You simply take out and eat what you want, yell for what you want more of and move on. The communal bowls stay on the tables throughout the entire evening, being filled as necessary by the waiters, remaining as each group of diners comes and goes. BoBoJi is very much a cultural phenomenon as well, and is best understood through experiencing the street side, noisy action of the institutions in which it is served. It is a classic street snack and often eaten at night, paired with beer, friends and fun.
Leshan is also home to myriad snacks that could keep one busy all day. Shao Mai (烧卖) is a type of delicately folded dumpling with ultra-thin skin. KaBing (卡并) is a steamed bun filled with the aforementioned spiced and steamed beef, and tofu brain (豆腐脑) is a gooey, hot, soft tofu in a sort of thick soup, that is filled with spices and beef. This doesn’t even get us started on the BBQ stalls that emerge on the streets when the days slip into darkness.
Chengdu is famous historically for its mixing of ingredients and food cultures from diverse geographical areas, but in a new rapidly changing culinary environment people throughout Sichuan are romantic about their food and its origins. To find the best, most authentic flavors Sichuan locals travel from city to city to try regional cuisines in the places they originated, and in their most classic incarnations. Leshan food is one of the most famed regional cuisines of Sichuan, and the best Leshan food is, you guessed it, in Leshan. And that’ s exactly why you should go there too – you can see the Buddha if you want, just leave time for food.
How to get there
A new hi-speed train makes Leshan easily accessible from Chengdu’s East Railway Station, the journey taking just over an hour. Once on the ground, just go where the people go. Or get Chengdu Food Tours to plan you a custom food (and Buddha I guess) tour to get the most out of your time in Leshan.