“China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavor“Old Chinese saying
Sichuan food, originating from the Southwestern region of China, is the most widely served cuisine in China. The dishes of the Sichuan region are known for their deep and rich flavors, especially the taste of Sichuan pepper which is unique to Sichuan. There are 23 distinct flavors identified in Sichuan cooking.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a famous historical and cultural city with a history of over 3,000 years. The city and region are famous for its hot food, leisurely lifestyle, and most importantly, giant pandas!
Land of Abundance – Sichuan is in the west-central part of China and has enjoyed a distinct historical and culinary identity in China. Separated from its neighbors by majestic mountain ranges and rivers, it boasts a temperate climate and a fertile central plain so conducive to agriculture that the province was nicknamed the “Land of Abundance”. Sichuan is notoriously humid and damp in the winter and hot in the summer. To counteract the soggy weather, the Sichuanese have historically spiked their diet with warming foods like garlic, ginger, and Sichuan pepper (a spice unrelated to the hot pepper that creates a numbing sensation on the tongue). When the chili pepper arrived in the region, the Sichuanese plugged it seamlessly into their preexisting palate.
The Great Migration – One of the most dramatic events in Sichuan’s history came in the 17th century, as the Ming dynasty was collapsing, and the Qing began to consolidate power. During this transition, a devastating set of disasters—rebellions, banditry, famine—resulted in massive depopulation. The best guess is that as much as 75% of Sichuan’s population died or disappeared during this period.
Over the next century, one of the greatest instances of mass internal migration in the history of China repopulated the province. A great majority of the new immigrants came from the two provinces directly to the east- Hunan and Hubei. According to historians, there were only around one million residents left in Sichuan by 1680, but between 1667-1707, 1.7 million immigrants arrived. That was about the same time the chili pepper had made its way as far inland as Hunan from the east coast of China, where it was originally introduced by Portuguese traders a hundred years earlier. Driven by overpopulation in their home province and by sheer economic necessity, the Hunanese migrated en masse to Sichuan and brought their beloved chili pepper with them. The rest is culinary history.
“The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” …“and he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.“Chairman Mao
Most Sichuan dishes are spicy, although a typical meal includes non-spicy dishes to cool the palate. Like the rest of Chinese cuisine, a balance of flavors and textures is paramount. Sichuan cuisine is composed of seven basic flavors: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic, and salty. Even though it is best known for its hot and spicy flavors, it has 23 identified flavors that include interesting named flavor profiles like “sour and hot”, “lychee flavor,” and “strange flavor”.
Essential Sichuan Ingredients
- Pixan Doubanjiang – Broad bean chili paste, or hot bean sauce is by far the most defining ingredient of Sichuan cooking, providing a key flavoring, hotness, a red coloring for many Sichuan dishes. Be sure to get the authentic Doubanjiang made in Pixan, it is important to capturing the true flavor and depth of Sichuan food.
- Sweet Wheat Paste – This fragrant bean puree is used in many pork dishes and adds a dark-sweet flavor to dishes like Double-cooked Pork.
- Sichuan Peppercorns – The ma (numbing) in ma-la (numbing and hot). These red or green peppercorns are unique to Sichuan. They have a pleasant aromatic smell that is reminiscent of pine. This spice is used frequently but sparingly in Sichuan cooking to add a mild “tongue tingling” sensation to meat and poultry dishes as well as to add an exciting touch to salt-and-pepper mixes.
- Dried Chili Peppers – Sun-dried chilies are indispensable in Sichuan cooking. Chili peppers in Sichuan are more about flavor than being incendiary like those used in neighboring Thailand and India. The most popular chili is the local erjingtao chili, long and mild but also hard to find outside the region. More readily available are the spicier “facing heaven” chili, “bullet” chilies, and its plumper cousin called “lantern chili”.
- Sichuan Preserved Vegetable (Zacai) –This is added to pork dishes to add a salty-pickle-y contrast to the richness of a sauce.
- Chinkiang Vinegar – This dark vinegar is used in many dishes in small amounts to add a bitter flavoring.
- Shaoxing Rice Wine – This wine used mostly in small amounts in marinades and sauces.
- Fermented Black Beans – Small and soft, preserved black beans have a pungent odor. They are used frequently in small amounts to heighten the flavor of poultry and fish dishes.
- Chinese Sesame Paste – Only used in a few dishes, Like bang-bang chicken, this unique and delicious element it well worth using.
- Spicy Chili Crisp – Sprinkled over most foods, spicy chili crisps are a must for topping rice, dumplings, noodles and everything else. Along with pickled vegetables, they can be found on Sichuan dining tables throughout the province.
- Dried Shiitake Mushrooms – Dried mushrooms are important to all Chinese cooking. Rehydrated and chopped, they add a chewy component to the dishes they are added to.
- Wood Ear – A fungus found growing on trees and dried until ready to use. They are soaked to soften and sliced into strands and that add a mild chew to dishes like dumplings.
MHT’s Ingredient Reccomendations:
Experience the full range of flavors of Sichuan cuisine by making some these incredible dishes right in your own kitchen.
My Hungry Traveler’s Sichuan Recipes:
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