If there's one takeaway that's stuck with me since my trip to China last spring, it's that vinegar and pickling are fundamental to Sichuan cuisine—at least as fundamental as the chiles and heat that food is so well known for. Some dishes we ate there were predominantly sour, but there were also plenty that weren't, and even these contained bits of pickled vegetables or just a splash of vinegar—often the tangy, faintly sweet inky-black variety called Chiangking. Mixed with rich oils and meats and fiery chiles, its effect was complex, but also clean-tasting. In fact, I've come to prefer vinegar to soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, and just about every other classic Chinese condiment I've had.
It wasn't until that trip that I made a connection about a bunch of my favorite dishes at Fuloon, arguably one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Boston area: they've all got a sour component.
The Wontons with Special Hot Sauce ($4.50) might be the best example of how vinegar holds together dishes that are otherwise rich and spicy. This preparation is moderately hot, and I imagine the burn would be considerable and the oil very cloying if the vinegar (and, I think, a touch of sugar) weren't there to even things out. In that sense, the dressing is more or less a vinaigrette, helped out by a handfuls of minced pickled mustard root, peanuts, and scallion greens.
The tang is much softer in the Starch Noodles with Pork ($10.95), but so is the flavor of this dish overall. In fact, I'd almost use the word "light" to describe it, partly because the vegetable presence is heavy—the julienned pieces of carrot, cucumber, and celery (not to mention tons of cilantro) distribute themselves nicely throughout the slippery mung bean noodles and slivers of pork—and partly because the vinegar tastes more clean than sour. When the noodles are particularly fresh and springy, it's one of my all-time favorite Chinese dishes.
The vinegar punch in the Kan Shue String Beans ($9.25) is isolated, but incredibly intense. See those wormy strips of turnip? They pack a wallop of sour and salt that's also juicy—basically, it's everything you want a pickle to be. The combination of those pieces with the minced up, fried bits of pork and the wrinkly, deep-fried beans is truly addictive.
It doesn't look impressive. In fact, it's a relatively unattractive dish. But the Mandarin Cabbage with Spicy and Sour ($9.25) is usually the favorite around the table. In fact, we've taken to placing a double order. Despite the name of the dish, the vinegar's punch far outweighs the "spice" of the chiles, but there's a silkiness and fruity sweetness about the dish that really works. I never mind that the cabbage is swimming in the sauce; the extra liquid is perfect for pouring over white rice.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Senior Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.