Chinese Aromatics 101: Kung Pao Fish With Dried Chilies and Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies add mouth-tingling heat to Kung Pao fish. Shao Z.

Study cuisines from around the world, and you'll find that many tend to rely on fairly consistent bases of aromatic vegetables, no matter the dish. In France, this vegetable base is known as mirepoix, and features celery, onions, and carrots. In Creole cooking, it's known as the holy trinity—onion, celery, and green bell peppers. Italy, Spain, German, and other countries and cuisines have their own variations, as well. So what would the Chinese equivalent of mirepoix or the holy trinity be? The answer depends largely on the region.

There are two fundamental aromatic bases used in Chinese cooking: spicy (chili peppers and garlic) and aromatic (ginger, scallion, and garlic). Yesterday, we explored the garlicky and fiery, fresh chili heat of Hunanese cooking. Today, we'll look at another nearby region that's famous for its spicy aromatic bases: Sichuan.

Located west of Hunan in southwestern China, Sichuan cuisine also relies heavily on garlic and chilies. But unlike the fresh, potently spicy chilies of Hunanese food, Sichuan cooking tends to rely more on dried chilies, along with zesty, mouth-numbing doses of Sichuan peppercorns. While called "peppercorns" in English, they're not actually related to black, white, or green peppercorns at all. Instead, these guys are the tiny dried fruit husks of Zanthoxylum, a plant native to China and Taiwan. The hot, numbing, tingling sensation—known as "mala" in Chinese—produced by Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers is the calling card of that region's cuisine.

And of all the Sichuan dishes, Kung Pao chicken is likely the first one that comes to mind for most people. Spicy and flavorful in a way that keeps you coming back for more, Kung Pao showcases the classic mala aromatics of Sichuan cooking. In this version, made with fish, you want to select a firm, white-fleshed fish that will hold up well to frying, such as tilapia or catfish.

I start by cubing the fish and tossing it with a marinade of soy sauce, ground white pepper, and cornstarch, along with a little egg white to help bind it together.

Then, working in batches, I fry the fish in hot oil in a wok, until golden on all sides.

Discarding the frying oil, I clean out the wok and dry it thoroughly to prepare for stir-frying.

I also go ahead and mix together the dish's sauce ingredients, which include soy sauce, rice vinegar, doubanjiang (Chinese fermented bean paste), sugar, and cornstarch.

With a fresh tablespoon of oil in the wok and heated until smoking, I throw in the aromatics and stir fry until the garlic is lightly golden and the dried chilies, scallions, and Sichuan peppercorns have had a chance to release their nuanced flavors.

Then I add the sauce to the wok, which thickens almost immediately, thanks to the cornstarch. Finally, I gently fold in the fried fish, being careful not to break the pieces.

One plated, I garnish the dish with roasted peanuts and serve right away.

It would be fun to prepare yesterday's Hunan cabbage with fresh chiles and this recipe in close succession, for a direct comparison of what they have in common (spicy chilies, garlic, scallions), and what's different (dried versus fresh chilies and Sichuan peppercorns).