Sichuan cuisine is a style of Chinese food that comes from the Sichuan province in southwest China. To truly understand the intricacies of this complex food I need you to do one thing - forget everything that you know about Chinese food in America, because this shouldn't even be a comparison. Now that the slate is wiped clean let's start with the basics.
The Sichuan province is a landlocked area in the southwest of China that is approximately the size of Pennsylvania and Montana put together. As you can probably guess from the large size of the area, there are a few different versions of cuisine that exist within the province. There are four sub-styles of Sichuan cuisine that include Chongqing, Chengdu, Zigong and Buddhist vegetarian style.
Almost anyone who lives in American can tell you that it's a melting pot of cultures and cuisines from almost every inch of the inhabited countries on the planet, but many people don't think about other countries being melting pots, too. China, specifically the Sichuan province, has a wide variety of culinary influence from different countries that make it the cuisine we know today. In the Middle Ages, Sichuan welcomed culinary influences from anyone who crossed their path. Travelers from the Near East brought with them broad beans, sesame and walnuts. Chile peppers were a welcome addition to the cuisine in the 16th century when they were brought from Mexico. Other ingredients that were brought from North America include corn (maize), white potatoes brought by Catholic missions and sweet potatoes.
Today, Sichuan is informally known as the "Heavenly Country" because it has a plentiful supply of food and natural resources. Their food is complex and includes seven basic flavors including sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty. Even with these many flavors to take into account, the food from each region has its own dynamics and intricacies.
When it comes to Sichuan cuisine, the food from Chongqing (pronounced chong-ching) is the spiciest of them all. Dishes from this region are known for their spicy and pungent flavors, even spicier than food from Chengdu. In this area, people place their food in high regards and restaurants are on every street corner. Some say that people in this area never grow wary of eating, something that Americans can relate to. When there is always food at your fingertips it can be hard to decide what and when to eat.
Some of the main ingredients in Chongqing cuisine include chile peppers, sesame seeds, fermented black beans, scallions, ginger, wine, soy sauce and seasonings. These ingredients are used in a variety of ways to prepare food. Some forms of food preparation include pickling, frying, smoking and drying.
Possibly the most important style of cuisine (and certainly one of the most interesting), the hot pot, comes from the Chongqing area of Sichuan. The hot pot was traditionally enjoyed as a cold weather meal and was eaten by many people at once. Today the hot pot is incredibly popular in all weather and at all times of the year. The closest comparison that I can make to a hot pot in American cuisine would be a fondue restaurant, specifically The Melting Pot. When ordering a hot pot, first you get to choose your type of broth. There are a number of broth types that range from mild to spicy and vary depending on the restaurant where you are eating. This pot of broth is brought to your table and you wait for it to boil once. After it has boiled you can add your meat or vegetables and wait for it to boil again. After the water has boiled twice you can remove the food and broth and pour it into your personal bowl to enjoy.
Chengdu (pronounced chung-doo) cuisine is similar to Chongqing cuisine in that they both put an emphasis on their hot pots, though in Chengdu they are slightly different. Hot pots in Chengdu range from mild to spicy and include fish head hot pots and medicinal herb hot pots. One signature dish in Chengdu is Ma Po Tofu, also sometimes translated as ‘pockmarked grandma's bean curd'. This is a dish that contains tofu cooked in a red chili sauce and combined with fermented black beans and minced meat.
Another dish that comes from Chengdu but is more familiar to many Americans is Kung Pao Chicken. Kung Pao Chicken is a stir fry dish that includes chicken, peanuts, vegetables and chile peppers. Although the Sichuan version of Kung Poa Chicken is extremely spicy, there are other versions throughout China and other countries, including America, that are much less mild.
Zigong (pronounced juh-gong) is a very interesting area, not only for their cuisine, but also for how they serve this food. It is said that the beef in Zigong has a very distinct flavor, and the locals take advantage of that. Many beef dishes are served in this area including Pepper Beef, Braised Beef, Salt Beef, Beef Soup and Roast Beef. If I didn't know any better I would say that beef is probably one of their most eaten meals. In this region, they even enjoy their beef after dark by turning their streets into large grilling tables, or street barbecue. At these stands you can find anything from pork and rabbit to mushrooms, broccoli and chicken wings.
Another famous dish from this area that some Americans may recognize is DanDan Mian, more commonly known in the Western parts of the world as Dan Dan noodles. DanDan Mian is a soup that consists of pickled vegetables, chile oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork and scallions served over noodles.
Buddhist Vegetarian Style
Buddhist vegetarian style cuisine is eaten not only in China, but also in Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and other East Asian countries. The cuisine style promotes non-violence and includes either vegetarian or vegan type meals. These vegetarian meals are eaten by clergy members all year round, but are also eaten by followers of the Buddhist religion temporarily (similar to Christians giving up meat for Lent).
Buddhist vegetarian style cuisine differs from other types of Sichuan cuisine in that the ingredients do not matter as much as the fact that the meal does not promote violence. Each meal is influenced by local availability of fresh food and was traditionally made by one cook to feed everyone in the monastery. One major difference between Buddhist vegetarian meals and Western vegetarian meals is that not only do Buddhists believe that meat should not be eaten, but they also believe that plants should not be murdered. This means that vegetables can be eaten for the most part unless they are root vegetables. Monks are also forbidden from eating garlic, mangoes and strong smelling plants because they excite the senses.
Sichuan cuisine has more than 20 different flavor profiles ranging from sweet and tangy to what most Americans would consider "burn your face off" hot. In the Sichuan province this extraordinary heat and flavor actually has a name, "ma la". "Ma la" flavor actually describes the tongue numbing sensation that you get from eating extremely hot chile peppers.
Sichuan peppercorns are another staple in Sichuan cuisine, but actually are not a peppercorn at all. Instead, these distinctive reddish-brown "peppercorns" are the outer pod of the fruit of an aromatic shrub or small tree native to the Central Province of China and are a member of the citrus family. Sichuan berries are very fragrant and provide an unusual, sharp flavor that begins mildly warm with earthy, lemony undertones and then quickly evolves to an almost numbing sensation on the tongue that works well with hot spices.
Food Preparation Styles
Tea Smoking - Tea smoking is a traditional Sichuan cooking style that is used on beef, fish and duck. Tea smoked duck is a specialty that is typically eaten on special occasions, like banquets and weddings. The amount of time and effort that is put in to create this meal is extraordinary, and the length of time to prepare the duck can be upwards of 7 days. First, the duck is marinated in seasonings and wine then blanched in hot water so that the skin is tight so it will be as crispy as possible when fried. The duck is then smoked over black tea leaves and twigs and finally deep-fried in vegetable oil. The result is duck meat that is crispy on the outside with tender, smoky, tea flavored meat on the inside. The dish is eaten alongside soft white buns called gebao.
Water Boiled Meat and Fish - "Shui Zhu," which translates to water-cooked is one of the most famous Sichuan styles of cooking, with fish being the most popular ingredient. With this style of cooking, thin slices of meat (pork or beef) or fish are used instead of cubes. This is to ensure that the meat or fish is cooked thoroughly but is still as tender as possible. These slices are boiled for only a few minutes in the broth, which is the most important part of the dish.
The broth used to make a water-boiled dish isn't bland by any comparison. Doubanjiang, or broad bean paste (using fava beans), is an important ingredient in the broth of every water-boiled dish along with dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Cabbage, bean sprouts and mushrooms are also common additions to water boiled meals. At the end the dish is topped with minced dried chiles, garlic, dried chiles and more Sichuan peppercorns.
Cumin Skewers - Even though you may not typically think of cumin when you think of Chinese food, it has been a key element in Sichuan cuisine for hundreds of years. Cumin skewers can be made with anything from lamb and chicken gizzards to mushrooms and chicken hearts. These skewers are marinated in cumin, ground Sichuan peppercorns and other ground spices and then grilled.
Sichuan, China may be a relatively small area in the terms of mileage, but the different combinations of ingredients are spectacular. I have told you about some of the most well known dishes in the area, but that doesn't even begin to cover it.