The Scintillating Gastronomy of Sichuan

August 23, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015
The Sichuan pepper has a pungent flavor and slight lemon taste to it. Much like a tiny electric shock, it produces a tingling and buzzing sensation with a bit of numbness when eaten.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)
The Sichuan pepper has a pungent flavor and slight lemon taste to it. Much like a tiny electric shock, it produces a tingling and buzzing sensation with a bit of numbness when eaten.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)

Sichuan gastronomy originated in ancient times in what is now Sichuan Province, in Southwest China. This cuisine has survived several dynasties, such as the Jin, Sui, Tang, Ming, and Qing. In the process, elements and cooking procedures have been incorporated, making it one of the most rich and diverse culinary traditions in China.

When cooking, Sichuan people pay extra attention to the color, texture, flavor, and shape of ingredients used. 

Their cuisine is renowned for its variety of flavors—always well seasoned—and especially for the use of one of the most distinctive flavors of this style: a good amount of spice. Among the spicy predilections is the locally grown Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao), which has its own special flavor and reaches tongue-numbing proportions. When well used, it adds a touch of distinction and excellence.

A well-known dish throughout the world, Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding) is a classic spicy Sichuan dish.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)
A well-known dish throughout the world, Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding) is a classic spicy Sichuan dish.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)

But there isn’t only one kind of “spicy” used in Sichuan’s gastronomy. Among other types are a dry aromatic spicy; crunchy aromatic spicy; spicy oil; flavored herb and spice oil; aromatic spicy (such as inclusion of spring onion, ginger, and garlic); chutney; and sour-spicy, among others.

All of these spices can be combined to form new seasonings; for example, creating a spicy fish sauce with variances in its acidic range, and so on. Thus, the Sichuan cuisine is so versatile that it perfectly represents the Chinese saying of “a hundred dishes, a hundred flavors.”

To become an expert in the cuisine of Sichuan, first pay special attention to the technique used in cutting ingredients, and the use of fire—that is, the proper use of temperature and firing in cooking each dish. 

Sichuan twice-cooked pork is in fact pork that is cooked twice. It is first boiled, drained, and then stir-fried in a spiced oil. Cabbage, leeks, and peppers typically accompany the pork.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)
Sichuan twice-cooked pork is in fact pork that is cooked twice. It is first boiled, drained, and then stir-fried in a spiced oil. Cabbage, leeks, and peppers typically accompany the pork.(Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)

For example, in a meat dish, instead of sautéing the meat beforehand, you sauté it with the other ingredients, allowing the various juices to mix. You must use high heat to quickly cook the food so that nutrients are retained, the food remains tender, and flavors are highlighted.

Another special feature of this cuisine are the broths. Broths should be clear—so clear that you see the bottom of the dish—while maintaining a flavorful, light taste. One of the most unique broths is Milk Broth; white in color, it has a very concentrated flavor, is slightly bitter, yet not greasy.

Legend has it that the dish Mapo Tofu was created by an old woman who had set up shop at the outskirts of Chengdu. Her shop was said to be near a trading route, so the dish quickly grew in popularity. (Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)
Legend has it that the dish Mapo Tofu was created by an old woman who had set up shop at the outskirts of Chengdu. Her shop was said to be near a trading route, so the dish quickly grew in popularity. (Courtesy of New Tang Dynasty)

Heat oil in a wok. Brown the meat on medium-high heat first, then set aside. Sauté green onions, garlic, ginger, hot pepper sauce, and tofu, then add meat last. Stir gently so that the tofu stays solid and absorbs juices. Cover and reduce heat to low, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. 

Mix cornstarch in water, and slowly add to simmering pot, to thicken sauce.

Add more hot pepper as desired, after cooking.

Serve with steamed rice.

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