Sichuanese is China’s most thrilling regional cuisine.
Although it’s most famous for its electrifying use of chilies and lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, the heart of the local style of cooking lies in the artful mixing of flavors.
Sichuanese cooks excel at combining hot, numbing, sweet, sour, savory and nutty seasonings to create an astonishing variety of flavors.
Locals like to say “each dish has its own style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.”
Some of these are dazzlingly hot, like the numbing-and-hot mix of Sichuan pepper and dried chilies.
Other dishes are mildly spicy, like those featuring a fish-fragrant sauce based on pickled chilies, and those with a sweet-and-sour lychee-flavored sauce are not hot at all.
A mix of regional influences
While a Chinese historian of the fifth century famously remarked on local people’s love of bold and spicy flavors, and while Sichuan pepper is an ancient Chinese spice, the chili is a relatively recent import from the Americas.
It wasn’t widely cultivated in Sichuan until the 19th century, but went on to become one of the most indispensable local seasonings.
In Sichuanese dialect, chilies are still known as “sea peppers” (hai jiao), a reference to their foreign origins.
Locals explain their predilection for chilies by referring to traditional Chinese medicine, which advises that people should eat plenty of “heating” foods to counter the damp humors of the local climate.
Chinese people will often ask a visitor to Sichuan,”ni pa bu pa la” – “are you afraid of chili heat?”
Unrelated to chili pepper or black pepper, Sichuan pepper – in the Zanthoxylum genus – is a prickly member of the citrus family.
Its berries, referred to as peppercorns, have a strong citrusy aroma and produce a tingling, numbing sensation around the mouth that the Chinese refer to as “ma” (the same word is used for “anesthesia” and “pins-and-needles”).
Capturing global palates
Although the staple food is rice, wheaten foods such as noodles, dumplings and flatbreads form part of the Sichuanese diet.
China: Eat like a local
Dan dan noodles, named after the shoulder poles of the vendors who used to sell them on the streets of the capital, Chengdu, are the best-known local noodle specialty.
Sichuan cuisine is often viewed, somewhat unfairly, as a cheap and unsophisticated people’s cuisine, in contrast to the stately imperial cooking of Shandong province and the refined, literary style of the Lower Yangtze Region.
In the 1990s, as China began to open up to the outside world, Sichuanese – known locally as chuan cai – became China’s trendiest cuisine.
Since the early 21st century, it has begun to capture the imaginations and the palates of the wider world.
Any visitor to Sichuan will be spoiled for choice of delicious things to eat, but the following is a short selection of gastronomic highlights.
1. Liang ban ji: Cold chicken in a spicy sauce
Sichuanese cold chicken dishes, made with poached chicken bathed in a spicy sauce, are simple yet sensational.
There’s no single recipe, but the chicken is often chopped on the bone and a typical sauce might include vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil and a sprinkling of ground Sichuan pepper.
Roasted peanuts or sesame seeds and sliced scallions may be added as a final flourish.
2. Mapo doufu: Pock-marked old woman’s tofu
If you ever thought tofu was boring, this dish will make you think again.
It’s a mind-blowingly delicious concoction of tender tofu, minced beef or pork, Sichuan chili bean sauce and ground Sichuan pepper that will warm your heart and make your lips tingle.
It’s named after its inventor, a Qing Dynasty woman restaurateur with a pock-marked face.
3. Hui guo rou: Twice-cooked pork
No dish is more beloved by the Sichuanese than this homely stir-fry of sizzling pork (complete with its fragrant fat) with chili bean sauce, fermented black beans and green garlic leaves.
The meat is first boiled, then sliced and fried, which is why it’s called “twice-cooked pork,” or literally, “back-in-the-pot” pork.
With nothing more than plain white rice and perhaps a gentle broth, it makes an entirely satisfying meal.
4. Yu xiang qie zi: Fish-fragrant eggplant
Classic “fish-fragrant” sauces are made with bright red pickled chilies, ginger, garlic and scallion, with base notes of sweet and sour – these are the seasonings of traditional fish cookery, which is the usual explanation for the curious name.
This combination of flavors can be used with meat, fish or poultry, but one of the most delicious variations is the everyday fish-fragrant eggplant.
5. Shui zhu yu: Water-boiled fish with sizzling chili oil
When the craze for Sichuanese food took China by storm in the late 1990s, this dish took center stage.
It’s a dramatic centerpiece of poached fish in a great sea of sizzling oil, thick with dried chilies and Sichuan pepper. The pieces of fish should be picked out of the fragrant oil with chopsticks: the oil itself is not meant to be eaten.
It’s one of a whole family of local dishes that are finished with smoking-hot oil and aromatic spices.
6. Shi ling shu cai: Seasonal greens
Lavishly spicy Sichuan dishes tend to hog the limelight, but no meal is complete without the balancing of mildly-flavored dishes – in particular seasonal vegetables.
Sichuan province lives up to its reputation as the “land of plenty” in its gorgeous abundance of fresh produce.
Try, for example, tender rape shoots (cai tai) in early spring, or the weirdly-wonderful ze’er gen, sometimes known as fishgrass or Chinese watercress, a salad vegetable with a distinctive sour taste.
7. Zhong shui jiao: Zhong dumplings in a spicy sauce
The Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, is famed for its “small eats.”
Zhong dumplings are small pork dumplings bathed in sweetened soy sauce, mashed garlic and chili oil.
Named after a local street vendor, they are one of the most popular Chengdu snacks.
8. Ma la huo guo: Numbing-and-hot hotpot
Sichuan hotpot is a whole dinner ritual: you sit around a seething cauldron of chilies and cook your own food in the broth.
Originally a specialty of Chongqing, it’s said to have been invented by laborers on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Locally preferred hotpot ingredients include beef tripe and other offal, but you may choose from a vast range of meats, vegetables and tofu.
Many restaurants offer divided hotpots, so diners can cook their food in either a spicy or a mildly flavored broth.
Fuchsia Dunlop was the first westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and has been researching and writing about Chinese culinary culture for more than 20 years. She’s the author of “Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China,” “Land of Plenty,” and “Every Grain of Rice.” Follow Fuchsia Dunlop on Twitter and Instagram @fuchsiadunlop.