Considering that the chilli pepper entered China, possibly from India, only 500 years ago, it's had a remarkable (some might say devastating) effect on Chinese cuisine - nowhere more so than in hot, steamy Sichuan province. But Sichuanese food is sophisticated in its range of flavours and textures and it's possible, if not entirely desirable, to escape the chilli pepper while dining in Chengdu, the provincial capital. Yulin Hotpot (aka Yulin chuanchuanxiang) 2/F, intersection of Huaxing St and Chunxi Rd. Open 24 hours Chuanchuanxiang means 'strung- together fragrance' and is the name for Chengdu's streetside hotpot restaurants. Customers buy skewers of vegetables, meat or tofu and boil them in a chilli soup laced with Sichuan peppercorns so numbing that they were once used as an anaesthetic. Payment is calculated by counting the number of skewers in a bucket at your feet. These places aren't for the faint-hearted: the floor is slippery with oil and the noise level is high. Sichuanese say chilli burns three times, on the way in, in the middle and on the way out. To avoid such unpleasantness, order a split soup - half chilli, half non-spicy fish-based - and eat mostly from the fish broth. You'll be relieved next morning. Meals cost about 20 yuan a person, which includes a bottle of beer. The Yu Family Kitchen Dianxin Nanjie 10, 2/F Tianshi Hotel, tel: (86 28) 8542 2795 This is a place that focuses more on the food and less on the explosives, but chef Yu Bo doesn't ignore the obsession with 'la', or spicy. Yu, who aims one day to cook solely organic food, specialises in presentation. Try his edible calligraphy brushes - dough stuffed with red bean paste, deep fried and stuffed into the head of a bamboo brush. Dip them into ketchup and, as Yu says, 'pretend you're an emperor' - only emperors were allowed to write in red. Or try his hedgehogs, steamed buns painstakingly cut with scissors to look like the spiky creatures and likewise stuffed with red bean paste. Yu will cook a banquet for you if ordered a day in advance at a cost of 80 to 100 yuan per person. Grandmother Chen's West Yuling Street 197, tel: (86 28) 8653 0162, 8675 4512 Many people know the dish: mapo dofu, or pockmarked tofu, squares of tofu laced with ground beef and swimming in chilli oil garnished with chives. This restaurant, which can trace its roots back to 1862, claims to be where Grandma Chen invented her famous dish. A large, square room with high ceilings and a kitchen at the back, where rows of blackened woks perch over giant flames, this restaurant is too cool for school and the staff are rude, but it's fun to eat where it all began. The gongbao chicken, another local classic, is also a reliable choice. Perhaps best of all are squares of deep-fried tofu dipped into thick, sweet evaporated milk. Cost: about 30 yuan each. Qingyang Taoist Vegetarian Restaurant Yihuan Lu Erduan 9, tel: (86 28) 8771 2246 Tucked behind Qingyang (Double Ram) Taoist temple, the signature dish here is Eight Fairies Attend a Meeting, a giant pot of mushroom-based broth with secret ingredients that taste delicate and strong at the same time. The bamboo shoots in sesame oil, a cold dish, is refreshingly cool and nutty. Continuing the Taoist theme, longevity soup contains red plums and rounds off the meal. Cost: About 50 yuan per person.