When Westerners think about authentic Sichuan food served in China, they often conjure up images of a dish so spicy that it can bring tears to people’s eyes. While it’s true that Sichuan dishes are spicy due to an ingredient called mala, it’s appeal goes far beyond its hotness.
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History of Sichuan Cuisine
Sichuan food served in China gets its name from a province of the same name in the southwest region. People native to China’s fourth-largest province tend to favor using spices and garlic as well as Sichuan peppers to give the dishes the mouth-numbing hotness they are famous for worldwide.
The reason the Chinese originally created the dish so hot was to have food available that kept them warm while keeping moisture and cold at bay. This makes sense considering the climate of Sichuan is damp, foggy, and muggy. While chili peppers are a mainstay of Sichuan food today, they did not exist in China until they received them as an import from the Americas in the 16th century. Some ingredients that original preparers of this dish used before chili peppers included betel nuts and ginger roots.
Most Common Ingredients in Sichuan Dishes
Those who wish to duplicate the taste in other parts of the world need to go shopping for some basic ingredients first. Chiles are the most common ingredient when making a modern Sichuan dish. They can be eaten fresh or cooked and then eaten dried, fermented, or pickled. The plumper and shinier chilies are called chao tian jiao while the milder and longer chilies are called er jin tiao. People east the second type most often in either the dried or pickled form. Other ingredients that make for flavorful Sichuan cuisine include:
- Doubanjiang: This is a salty and spicy chili paste made with soybeans and broad beans that have already gone through the fermentation process.
- Garlic: Along with chilies, garlic helps to give the dish its strong and spicy flavor.
- Pickled vegetables: Pickled and sour cucumbers often accompany Sichuan dishes. The art of pickling is popular in China and particularly when preparing this type of food.
- Red Sichuan peppercorns: The peppercorn is the ingredient primarily responsible for the numbing effect of Sichuan dishes. Although hot, peppercorns leave a lemony aftertaste in the mouth.
Examples of Sichuan Dishes to Prepare and Eat Outside of China
Westerns who are not accustomed to this style of cooking should first prepare vegetables that are both dry and fried. Green beans are a popular choice. Cooking them with minimal oil or even no oil will ensure a crunchy taste. The next step is to prepare seasoned water to poach the fish. The goal is to have soft-fleshed fish to pair nicely with the crunchy vegetables.
As for dishes to prepare, fuqi feipian is a cold appetizer with offal and braised beef covered by a fair amount of chili sauce. As a meatless alternative to fuqi feipian, chuanbei liangfen includes even more chili sauce along with clear cold noodles and jelly. Chung pao chicken, a classical favorite, includes chilis, peanuts, vegetables, and Sichuan peppercorns.
These are just three options adventurous eaters have to expand their palates and realize there is so much more to Sichuan food than the initial shock of the spiciness.