15 years ago, I'd have characterized Sichuan cuisine as little more than fiery bordering on incendiary, pointing out one of my favorite dishes the Chongqing chicken—hacked up bits up of bird showered in an angry blizzard of fried dry chilies and Sichuan peppercorns—at the now-shuttered location of Grand Sichuan in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. Another characteristic I might have noted would have been the intense tingling sensation brought on by the copious use of Sichuan peppercorn.
In the Chinese restaurants of my teens, this cuisine was always spelled Szechuan, and ma la, the combination of fiery chili peppers and tingly Sichuan peppercorns, was wholly absent.
After visiting Grand Sichuan for a few years, I thought I knew all there was to know about "authentic" Sichuan food, if only because that chowhound hot spot eschewed a spelling that I'd come to associate with Long Island strip mall Chinese and turned the ma-la-meter up to 12.
But there's more to Sichuan cooking than scorched taste buds and peppercorn-numbed lips. The cuisine of Sì Chuānlù (四川路), or "Four circuits of rivers," is vastly more complex, invoking foreign cultural influences, cooking techniques, and ingredients.
"It's not just chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns and maybe whole dried pepper for color," says Brooklyn-based food writer and culinary historian Andrew Coe. "That's what you get in an inauthentic "authentic" Sichuan restaurant," like my old flame Grand Sichuan. "Sichuan food is really about a variety of flavors: spicy, flowery (Sichuan peppercorns), salty, sour, sweet, bitter, smoky, etc. Frequently all of those flavors are combined in one dish. The result is a cuisine with an incredible depth and complexity of flavor, hitting all sense receptors in your mouth, nose, and gastrointestinal system at the same time. You can tell a bad Sichuan restaurant because it hits one note at a time; dishes at a good Sichuan restaurant are a symphony."
The Spice Climate
The province's climate is brutally humid, damp, and steamy in the summer and damp and chilly in the winter. Sichuan's weather is a popular folk explanation for the local taste for chilies. "You need to eat the right spices to drive out this dampness and restore a healthy equilibrium," says Fuchsia Dunlop, who has forgotten more about Sichuan cuisine than I shall ever hope to know.
Chili peppers were brought to China from South America by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, and it didn't take long for the residents of subtropical Sichuan to adopt them.
"Spices such as cassia bark (cinnamon), black cardamom, and Sichuan peppercorn were already commonly used in their cooking at that time," says Kian Lam Kho, the author of Chinese food blog Red Cook who is currently working on a definitive cookbook on classic Chinese cooking techniques.
To be sure, ma la is the most well known of the Sichuan flavors. But it's like blackening in Cajun cooking: easy to distinguish and even easier to abuse.
"Outsiders tend to stereotype Sichuanese cuisine as being all about chili heat and the numbing taste of Sichuan pepper," Dunlop says. "But while it's certainly true that chilies—fresh, dried and pickled, are extremely important in the local food—Sichuanese cuisine is about so much more than just fieriness. What really makes Sichuanese cuisine stand out is its stunning variety of flavors. They say yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei: 'each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavours'."
A Sichuan Flavor Primer
As the first female chef to ever train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, Dunlop had to learn a roster of some 20 hallmark flavors. What follows is but a short list of the many signature flavors of Sichuan cookery.
Ma la wei: The combination of Sichuan peppercorns (ma) and dried chilies (la) is perhaps the most known, and in the wrong hands, most misused of the hallmark flavors of Sichuan cuisine. Ma denotes pins and needles, and in indeed a heavy hand with the Sichuan peppercorns feels just like novocaine.
Even though it's called a pepper, Sichuan pepper (a berry of the prickly ash tree) has lemony notes and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth caused by hydroxy-alpha sanshool. "They produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion," Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking.
Ginger, garlic, scallion and other aromatics are often added to enhance ma la's flavor. Fermented bean paste is also common addition. Ma la is used in such cold dishes like ma la rabbit and hot dishes like ma po tofu.
Fish fragrant (yu xiang wei): Despite the name, there's no fish used in yu xiang wei. Rather, it's based on seasonings used in traditional Chinese fish cookery. Pickled red chilies, vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce along with ginger, garlic, and scallion are the key players. Popular dishes employing this sweet, sour and piquant sauce include yu xiang qie (fish fragrant eggplant) and yu xiang rou si (fish fragrant pork slivers).
Mouthwatering (kou shui wei): This sauce for cold dishes like chicken chunks in red oil sauce gets most of its color and flavor from red chili oil. It's the addition of sesame paste, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce along with garlic and ginger that make the sauce mouth-watering as opposed to just mouth blazing.
Strange flavor (guai wei): Like kou shui wei, this more exotic sister sauce is also used to season cold dishes, but the flavor of this sauce is more complex. Garlic, ginger, and scallion are combined with dark rice vinegar, and Sichuan pepper, and chili oil. "No individual flavor should clamor for the attention at the expense of any other," Dunlop writes in Shark's Fin and Sichuan Peppercorn.
Spicy sesame: A heavy sesame paste combined with the ma la flavor of Sichuan peppercorn and dried red chilies, used to dress cold dishes.
Garlic paste flavor (suan ni wei): Mashed garlic, chili oil, and sesame oil are combined with soy sauce that's been simmered with brown sugar and spices. Cold pork in hot and garlicky sauce is a popular dish employing suan ni wei.
Wine fragrant: Used mostly for hot dishes, this flavor is created from rice wine lees and rice wine. The fermented flavor is similar to what you'll find in some Shanghainese dishes, but it's enhanced with a hint of Sichuan peppercorn.
Scorched chili flavor: Dried chilies are fried in a wok until they begin to toast and darken. Other ingredients are then tossed in the fragrant oil, and Sichuan peppercorn is often added. Sichuan spicy cucumber salad takes its flavor from scorched chili.
Sichuan Dishes You Should Know
"Sichuanese food is just endlessly stimulating and exciting," says Dunlop, who has a long-standing passion for the cuisine. "It doesn't rely on expensive ingredients because its heart and soul lies in the alchemy of flavor."
The alchemist's arsenal consists of fiery elements: dried, fresh, and pickled chili peppers and tingly Sichuan peppercorn; sour and fermented ones such as pickled vegetables, salty fermented black beans, and dou ban jiang, chili bean paste made from fermented peppers and fava beans; along with sugar, dark, rice vinegar, sesame oil and paste, and chili oil.
Chonqing-preserved mustard tuber, or zhacai, commonly referred to as Sichuan preserved vegetable, is such a popular pickle throughout China that the Chinese government uses it to track labor migration, Dunlop writes on her website.
There are more than a dozen Sichuan cookery techniques. Some of the more distinctive ones include dry-frying (gan bian), dehydrating meat or vegetables in hot oil or stir-frying dried ingredients in a dry wok before oil and seasonings are added, to get a toasty, fragrant effect; dry-braising (gan shao), letting a sauce reduce so that the seasonings cling to the ingredients; water poaching (shui zhu); and zhangcha, smoking meats, specifically duck, using tea leaves and camphor twigs.
Small Dishes and Street Food
Many Sichuan xiao chi (snacks or "small eats") have their roots in the vibrant street food culture of Chengdu in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these is dan dan mian, a noodle dish with a savory topping of minced beef or pork cooked with pickled vegetables, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorn sauced with a combination of sesame paste, soy sauce, and chili oil. It takes its name from the word dan, the bamboo shoulder pole vendors once used to carry their wares through the streets. Stoves, bowls, ingredients, and condiments were all part of the dan dan mian man's mobile kitchen. Many of the seasonings sit at the bottom of the bowl. Stirring them up awakens the flavors, coating the tangle of noodles with the piquant sauce. If you've never had Sichuan before it may also awaken a passion for this fiery and savory cuisine.
Fu qi fei pian—commonly rendered on English language menus as ox tongue and tripe—has a romantic backstory. The dish is a mountain of cold, frilly-edged ribbons of beef tripe and tongue, often bolstered with translucent sheets of tendon and washed in spiced broth, chili oil, and Sichuan peppercorns, then topped with roasted peanuts, cilantro, and in some cases, fragrant Chinese celery. The husband and wife who purportedly invented the offal extravaganza were said to have such a harmonious union that the dish's name, fu qi fei pian, translates to "man and wife lung slices."
Zhong shui jiao, tender pork filled dumplings bathed with sweetened soy sauce and chili oil and crowned with a dab of garlic paste, take their name from their inventor, one Zhong Xiesen.
Yet another popular snack in Sichuan is ma la rabbit heads. Shangliu Old Mother Rabbit Head is the place in Chengdu to enjoy this delicacy. Rabbit heads, along with diced rabbit in ma la sauce, are so popular that nearly all the bunnies bred for meat in China are sent to Sichuan. In fact the demand for rabbit meat is so high that one company has begun importing rabbits from France last month. Perhaps the popularity of eating rabbit heads has something to with linguistics; the Chinese phrase "to eat rabbit heads" (chi tu lao kenr) is slang for having sex.
Kung pao chicken (gong bao ji ding): Many classic regional Chinese dishes have made their way into the so-called American Chinese restaurant canon. Such is the case with gong bao ji ding, more commonly known as kung pao chicken. The dish was a favorite repast of Ding Baozhen, a late Qing Dynasty governor of Sichuan, whose official title was gong bao. Its origins are lost in the steamy, languid air of Sichuan, but theories abound. One posits that Ding Baozhen brought it with him from his home province of Guizhou; another that he ate it in a modest restaurant when he went out in humble dress to observe the real lives of his subjects; and yet another had his chef inventing the finely chopped chicken dish because the governor had bad teeth.
"Whatever the truth of its origins, its association with an imperial bureaucrat was enough to provoke the wrath of the Cultural Revolution radicals, and it was renamed "fast-fried chicken cubes" (hong bao ji ding) or "chicken cubes with seared chiles" (hu la ji ding) until its political rehabilitation in the 1980s," wrote Dunlop in Land of Plenty.
With its trifecta of cubed chicken, golden peanuts, and ruddy chilies, gong bao ji is beautiful and delicious thanks to a light sweet-and-sour sauce punched up with chilies and just enough Sichuan peppercorn to make your lips tingle.
Twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou): This dish's Chinese name literally means "back-in-the-pot meat." The name comes from the fact that the fatty pork—either skin on belly or leg—is first boiled, then fried in a wok, with plenty of dou ban jiang, black beans, and leeks until it is sizzlingly delicious. The thin ribbons of fatty pork are among the most beloved of Sichuan dishes. The odd pairing of intensely flavored, fragrant pork and fresh green vegetables is a source of great nostalgia for Sichuanese people living abroad.
Like kung pao chicken, hui guo rou comes with a side of political intrigue. It was eaten with ritualistic regularity at meetings of Sichuan's notorious secret societies—before the communists wiped them out. It still goes by the nickname "secret society meat" (pao ge rou) in some parts of western Sichuan.
Recipe: Twice-Cooked Pork
Ma po tofu (pock-marked grandmother tofu): This dish of wobbly cubes of silken tofu awash in a fiery ma la sauce, heightened by the addition of salty sweet black beans and ground beef, takes its name from its alleged inventor, a pock-marked granny whose name has been lost to history. According to Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook: "Eugene Wu, the Librarian of the Harvard Yenching Library, grew up in Chengdu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd, or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. Eating a bowl of the wobbly cubes of silken tofu is what I imagine it must be like to consume cloud of fire."
Dry-fried string beans (gan bian dou jiao): Sometimes known as "burnt toast" string beans, this dish involves stir frying the beans for a prolonged time in oil until they scorch, shrivel, and dehydrate. Smoky, savory, and spicy, the beans are crunchy yet tender, and go great with white rice.
Recipe: Sichuan Dry-Fried Long Beans
Water-poached fish (shui zhu yu): I like to think of this fiery fish dish as the pescatarian's answer to ma po tofu, but only because it involves pieces of protein cooked in a somewhat thinner spicy sauce. Ma po's heat is somewhat tempered by the sweet black beans, but shui zhu yu is a full-on ma la assault whose angry-looking broth includes dou ban jiang, Sichuan peppercorn, red chilies, and garlic. With plenty of cabbage and other veggies, it is as delightful on a winter's night as it is on a steamy summer afternoon.
Chongqing, Where Hotpot is King
For all its nuances and subtlety, there is one Sichuan dish that's renowned as the spiciest: ma la hou gou, or Sichuan hotpot, as served in the dish's spiritual home city of Chongqing. Dunlop characterizes it as "the real numbing and hot experience." "You sit in front of a pot that seethes with chilies and Sichuan pepper, and every morsel of food that you cook in the wok is kind of covered in bits of chilli and Sichuan pepper. Combined with the intense humidity of the Chongqing summer climate, it's a real knockout. It's quite hilarious. It's so hot, you won't believe it."
Dunlop is quick to point out thought that Chongqing hotpot is an extreme example, albeit more authentic than the Chongqing chicken I had all those years ago in Chelsea.
"The international stereotype is that it's all fiendishly hot and spicy," Dunlop says. "It's actually incredibly diverse. I think there's something for every different kind of taste."
More Sichuan Cuisine
- 14 Essential Sichuan Eats (Beyond Hot Pot) in Chengdu and Chongqing »
- 11 Sichuan Peppercorn Recipes »
- How The Best Mapo Dofu is Made »
- The Vegan Experience: Can I Make Vegan Mapo Tofu That's Better Than The Real Thing? »
- Chinese Aromatics 101: Kung Pao Fish With Dried Chilies and Sichuan Peppercorns »