Sichuan cuisine is known for its distinctive spicy flavour – the “ma la” or numbing spice, as it is called in Chinese.It’s a taste sensation whose blend of flavours are habit-forming. Located in South West China, Sichuan cuisine was first recognized as a regional cuisine during the Southern Song Dynasty (BCE 1127-221) when dishes were presented in what was then imperial Hangzhou.
It is one of the eight great cuisines of China and it’s said to have undergone several major transformations, as hotter spices and chillies were introduced to the province through South America in the 16th century by Portugese traders. During those times, Sichuan food was more closely characterized as sweet and the spicy flavour much milder, derived from mustard leaves and ginger. It is said that modern Sichuan food represents a combination of food traditions of the Ba people in the far east of Sichuan province (still an ethnic minority people) as well as the food traditions of the Shu ethnic group, who resided in the fertile plains of Chengdu and the Han River Valley.
Located among mountains, plains and rivers, in fertile lands which for hundreds of years have yielded abundant vegetables, rice, beans and sesame. Its climate is subtropical: humid and steamy during summer, while still damp in winter.
The dishes are known for their bold flavours: ample servings of bell peppers, brown bean chilli sauce, ginger, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented soy beans, green beans, peanuts, refreshing pickled cucumbers with mustard, soy sauce, cooking vinegar, broadbean sauce, chilli sauce, star anise, oils, spring onions and chives. Sichuan peppercorns add a numbing, tingling sensation to the mouth, one that lingers on and can be savoured after the meal is over. It is often described as a “dry” spicy sensation, as with the use of dry ingredients such as cayenne pepper, dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorn, derived from the prickly ash tree. There are also distinctive tastes of sweet, sour, smoky, salty and garlicy. In fact, Sichuan province also has a distinctive salt from the wells of the Zigong region. It is the combination of these flavours which give Sichuan cuisine its uniqueness.
The cooking methods are typically quick frying, stir-frying, dry-braising and dry-stewing. Stir-frying on a high heat with only a little oil are an excellent method for retaining crispy vegetables. Spices and oil are only added towards the end of the cooking process.
Likewise, a short quick fry is perfect for meat strips, allowing them to retain their juices. Corn starch is used in the Sichuanese dry braising method to create the spicy gravy, where meat (especially beef although pork is the main meat as well as rabbit) and vegetables are stirred continuously in an iron pot until the liquid reaches its evaporation point.
Sichuanese food is also known for its seafood and methods of preservation with salting, smoking, air-drying and pickling.
Frog leg hot pot is one of the more distinctive Sichuanese meals I have come across. Frog legs are a delicacy, even sold in frozen bags
in Walmart nowadays. Some of the classic Sichuanese dishes are Dan Dan Noodles, Tea-smoked duck, Sichuan hotpot, Kung Pao chicken, and Mapo tofu. I once travelled to Chengdu and was lucky enough to go to the original restaurant, at least, what I was told was the original Ma Po Dou Fu – in English, it’s loosely translated as “Pock-marked Grandmother’s Tofu”. Whatever “authentic” means, I know what I look for in a good Ma Po Dou Fu: it must have a good chilli bean sauce base, with the distinctive Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, chives, firm tofu pieces and the presence of star anise. This is beautifully off-set with a bite of cold cucumber to ease the oral burn.
By ELIZABETH WINKELMAN