Sichuan Cuisine (or sometimes called Szechuan, Szechwan – 四川菜 ) is one of the 8 main Chinese Cuisines and its capital, Chengdu, was recognised by Unesco in 2011 as a city of gastronomy. Sichuan food is so good that it made it out in the world and can be found in a few restaurants through a few classic dishes.
But what makes it so special compared to others? A walk in the streets of Chengdu or any nearby town in summer or a stroll in a local market will quickly bring to your attention two of the main ingredients of this cuisine. Chillies are drying on the side of the streets and the strong smell of the numbing peppers is coming out of a few bags on the market. If you would have to simplify Sichuan food to two ingredients it would surely be those two: dry chillies and numbing peppers (or huā jiāo – 花椒).
Those peppers were truly a discovery for me: with a strong taste, once in your mouth they numb your tongue a little bit if used properly. This is the kind of ingredient you don’t want to use too much of! But once you pass this sensation a lovely tangy and flowery taste takes over. As for the chillies… those are believed to have been imported from Mexico and since then have been happily adopted by the locals.
But what does Sichuan cuisine look like? It’s hard to pin it down to only a few dishes. People in the area are fond of meat and river fish and also enjoy all kind of vegetables like aubergine, lotus roots, potatoes and beans. We’ll pin it down to 4 main categories: the famous hot pot, the classic dishes, modern dishes and new trends.
The Grand Classic: Sichuan Hot Pot
If you’ve been in Sichuan then there’s a big chance you couldn’t escape a Hot Pot. For people here it’s the solution to every problem. You’ve got a cold? Let’s have hot pot! It’s too hot? Let’s have hot pot! Your stomach is upset? Hot Pot! You don’t like hot pot? You’ve not tried the right one, let’s have hot pot!
You can’t escape the hot pot. Whether it’s the Chongqing hot pot, the Fish hot pot, the Mouton hot pot there is always one main thing you might notice: the lovely red colour of the broth that is brought before you.
For those who never had hot pot the principle is simple: you push your selected food in the boiling broth in the middle of the table and wait for it to cook. In the meantime you get to create your own sauce on the side that usually includes peanuts, garlic, fresh chillies and chilli oil. Pick your cooked meat or vegetable from the central broth, plunge it in your sauce and eat… Simple, delicious, convivial, it’s easy to see why people love it so much.
Considerate for outsiders the hot pot can be served in two broths: spicy and non spicy so don’t worry if you don’t enjoy chillies that much.
Classic Sichuan dishes, a staple in the region
While hot pot is a staple around here a few more dishes can be found in most restaurants and are an important part of the local cuisine. While there are many of them, I will only focus on a few that are our favourites and that you should be able to find in most restaurants (we’ve added the Chinese characters, we hope it helps!)
One of the most famous one and beloved by most foreigners (Yes, me included) is the famous Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁). The mix of the sauce, the peanuts, garlic and ginger make for a winning combination. Kung Pao can also be found in some restaurants with pork or beef. Not very spicy, this dish is perfect to get used to the area.
Twice cooked pork ( 回锅肉) is everywhere and offers a very different flavour: smoky! A bit spicier than the Kung Pao, it’s another main dish of the local cuisine.
Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐 ) might even feel spicier since the tofu absorbs the spicy sauce in which its bathing. Smooth and tasty, tofu has become one of my favourite snacks now thanks to this dish.
Dan Dan Noodles (担担面 ) are probably the best noodles you’ll get in China! Shredded pork, scallions, spicy sauce and fresh noodles make for a quick lunch that you’ll find in most little restaurants in the street. At less than RMB10, it sure is worth a try!
Ya’an Fish (雅鱼) is a speciality from our little town of Ya’an, near Chengdu. A fish is served in sauce and on a bed of green and red chillies. What makes this fish so special is the small sword-shaped bone that can be found in its head. Legend says that when one of the local goddess stopped a war in Ya’an she dropped her sword in the middle of the river and ended in the head of a river fish. And you know me… I love a good local legend!
With tons more traditional meals (tea smoked duck, spicy deep-fried chicken, pickled radish…), it would take me a lot more time to go through them all and far too many pages. We’ll pass now to a more modern view of the Sichuan cuisine.
Classical to modern, what Sichuan cuisine is now
So with so much going on, what is really left for modern cuisine and how do the local chef still find a way to develop the art of Sichuan cuisine? Well it’s pretty simple… they twist almost every meal to a Sichuanese version adding a sauce and flavours that they know so well.
That’s how you end up with ribs and fries covered in green and red chillies while bathing in chilli oil or how you end up with dumplings to dip in a spicy sauce. Oh how travelling to Shanghai after all of this makes everything taste so blend other there…
Tofu is fried, the meat is smoked and served cold, the salad is seasoned with sesame sauce and the traditional soup is getting a new lifting adding to it different vegetables like a bit of pumpkin. While most dishes get this spicy taste that is so particular to the area, a lot of those modern dishes try to focus on an added flavour and boost it up. Dishes get sweeter, smokier and it’s a great experience.
The only thing that, maybe, really lacks in Sichuan cuisine would be dessert. Fruits are served but not much else. You might get one or two sweet options if you are lucky but clearly this is not what Sichuan is the best at, you might have to go North for that.
Unusual trends emerging in the region
But Sichuan it’s also the unknown and the strange cuisine that seems to come out of nowhere. And while most cities seem to import a lot of Western food, Sichuan also focus on different things, our favourite one? The Buddhist (Tibetan) Hot Pot. It’s hard to know where this one comes from (yes I know, there’s the word Tibetan in there but let me explain…) since it’s essentially a vegetarian hot pot that offers a plentiful variety of vegetables and tofus to add to your broth that’s made from tea and a few local spices. What makes you doubt its Tibetan origins is the fact that the harsh conditions of the Tibetan plateau make it pretty hard to grow anything else than barley so how would you come up with such a hot pot?
Our guess? A new trend to be healthier. In an area where people do eat a lot of meat it’s refreshing to get something else. Those restaurants also don’t allow waste which makes a change from the normal eating habits of the region. Good and filling, this hot pot is not spicy (except if you decide to add fresh red peppers to your mix).
Now after a quick overview of Sichuan cuisine, its flavours and diversity, we sure hope we’ve convinced you to try it! Have you ever had Sichuan food? And do you feel like there is more to it than the spicy flavours? Tell us in the comments!
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