If you've ever eaten Kung Pao Chicken, you've tasted a little bit of Sichuan cuisine. It is an extremely popular cuisine choice in China, with lots of people venturing to this region just to enjoy the spicy heat of the food. It is spicy and mouth numbing, and the numbing occurs through the use of Sichuan pepper, which comes from the prickly ash tree. You may find that sometimes Sichuan can be spelled Szechuan or Szechwan, depending on the person doing the translating. The name comes from the Chinese phrase for "four circuits of rivers."
In Sichuan cooking, you want the food to be 30% spicy. This does not mean a single dish should only be 30% spicy, it means out of ten foods, only 3 should be spicy. The level of spiciness depends on the chef and also on personal preferences of the person eating the food. Because Sichuan cuisine is known for its spicy food, people tend to think of only spicy food when thinking of this cuisine, even though this is not the case.
In Sichuan cuisine, the absolute most important spice is the Sichuan Peppercorn. It gives food the "ma la" flavor that Sichuan cuisine is known for. This means that the food is slightly numbing, almost like applying an antiseptic to the lips. This pepper is not actually from the pepper family at all, at least not in the way that black peppercorns are. Sichuan peppercorns are from the prickly ash bush and their flavor is sometimes compared to touching a battery to the tongue. That nice, zingy flavor that numbs the mouth slightly and gives a bit of a shocking feeling is the signature flavor of a lot of dishes from this cuisine.
Sea Salt is an extremely popular ingredient in Sichuan cooking. In the United States, Chinese food is often thought of as being rather salty, but that's not the case with home cooking and authentic Chinese cuisines. This spice is used artfully in almost every dish to give just a little something extra to the meal. It is also used to help preserve foods that may spoil quickly, like fish.
Unlike in the western world, Star Anise is not used exclusively in baking for the Chinese and in Sichuan cuisine. In this Asian Cuisine, Star Anise is used for slow cooked dishes and in plenty of soups and stews for that distinct flavor to get across the whole dish.
Chiles and Chile Powder are integral in a lot of the spiciest foods in Sichuan cuisine. This cuisine is not known for just its "ma la" quality, but also the plain spiciness of certain dishes. Some people, usually those not familiar with Sichuan cuisine, compare it to eating fire. This is of no mind to people who consume it everyday though! As with all chileheads, people who eat chiles daily are more likely to enjoy it and get accustomed to the heat.
Cinnamon is a delicious, frequently used spice in Sichuan cuisine. This spice is considered a sweet spice, but it can be used in all sorts of dishes from savory to salty. Cinnamon is popular in soups and stews, as well as meat-based dishes.
Often used in conjunction with Sichuan pepper, Ginger is another popular spice in this cuisine because it enhances the "ma la" flavor quite a bit. This is a flavor that has a slight heat to it, and it pairs well with the numbing effect from the pepper.
White Pepper is used in this cuisine in the way that black pepper is used in other cuisines. It goes on everything, tastes great, and helps enhance the zingy taste of certain dishes. In most Chinese cooking, where pepper is called for it is understood that white pepper is the one to use.
Jiao Yan is a key spice blend in Sichuan cuisine. This blend is made up of Sichuan Peppercorns and sea salt. This does not come as a surprise, since salt and the Sichuan peppercorn are two of the most popular spices in Sichuan cuisine individually.
A huge part of Chinese cuisine involves the balance of five flavors, and this is not lost in Sichuan cuisine. Five Spice is a spice blend that takes an element from each flavor and combines it to create a perfect mashup of flavors to compliment many dishes. It is used most frequently with poultry and in beef dishes.
It is easy to see that Sichuan cuisine is not for those who cannot stomach spicy foods. This vibrant, interesting cuisine is perfect for adventurous eaters, but also for people who are looking to give the spicier side of China's food a try. Sichuan cuisine is legendary, and it will absolutely give you an experience you will never forget. Don't be surprised if you come back to this cuisine over and over again after you try some of the flavors presented here.