An introduction to Sichuan food

17 February 2014 | 0 Comments

One day in New York, textile artist Ilya Fisher discovered Sichuan food. Now she's the cuisine's most devoted advocate. Here she explains what it's all about, and why you'll love it.

The power of a book

Has a book ever changed your life? It has mine. I picked one up, a memoir about living in China, when I was in New York a few years ago, and I haven’t been the same since. 

I grew up in London with Cantonese food and exotic dim sum, so I’ve always had a liking for the lightness of Oriental food. But this book was really an explosion in my life, because it introduced me to the food of one province in China – Sichuan. French food took a tumble to second place, and I took to learning about Sichuan cooking, taking Mandarin lessons, travelling around China on an incredible gastronomic tour, and converting my friends to this most exciting of all cuisines. 

China is a vast country – over 9.6 million square kilometres – and the land ranges from the mountainous Himalaya to the arid Gobi desert, with frozen winters in the north down to tropical Hainan in the south. It’s considered to have not one but eight regionally-based great culinary traditions. One of these is the food of Sichuan, which is popular with the Chinese, and, increasingly, the British. 

A numbing spice

pepperSichuan food is characterised by the most wonderful, delicious bold flavours: chilli, ginger, garlic, star anise, spring onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, black vinegar and possibly the most incredible spice of all: Sichuan pepper (all ingredients pictured in main image above). What more could you ask for? Sichuan food has a reputation for being very spicy. Yes, it can be, but much of it is not. Nearby Hunan province is also known for its chilli heat, but it’s quite different – harsher, not tempered with the fragrance and sweetness of its neighbour. 

Sichuan pepper (not a true peppercorn) has an intense spicy taste that develops and can even temporarily numb your mouth and lips. It is the woody husk around the inedible hard black seed that is used in cooking. To prepare, it is usually dry-fried until its fragrance fills the air and then ground in a pestle and mortar. The Chinese have a descriptive term, ‘ma-la’, where ‘ma’ refers to the spicy numbing Sichuan pepper, and ‘la’ to the spicy heat of the chilli pepper. A good example of a ma-la dish is the classic ma po tofu, or ‘pockmarked old mother’s beancurd’ – simply a reference to the original creator of the dish, nothing more sinister! 

My kind of hot pot

foodAnother classic ma-la, or hot-and-numbing dish, is the Sichuan Hot Pot (pictured left) in which you cook an exciting selection of ingredients in a bubbling broth, heated underneath, seething with chilli and Sichuan pepper, dropping in the prawn, mushroom or dumpling and scooping it up when it’s cooked to your liking, before dipping in a sauce.

I first had this in a Hot Pot restaurant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, expecting it to be a bit dull. How wrong I was! The flavour from the broth was extraordinary, and the DIY dips (made from a selection of ingredients including sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and coriander) were packed with flavour. There’s always a huge choice of what to cook in the bubbling broth, and the ingredients are displayed beautifully on the plate. Gorgeous little finger-shaped dumplings, tiny mild rabbit kidneys that pop in your mouth, wafer thin slices of beef and pork, vegetables and mushrooms… 

Deceptively fishy  

foodAnother one of my favourite Sichuan taste combinations is the ‘fish fragrant’ flavour. It's not actual fish, but so called because it is a combination often used in fish dishes. For example, the classic ‘fish fragrant aubergine’ (pictured left) is surely on the list of the greatest aubergine dishes of all time. The ‘fishy’ flavour is a combination of salty, sweet, sour and spicy, and the aubergine is first fried then briefly braised in the sauce to a melting softness. It still holds its shape though, and is chopped up like chunky chips. 

Another must-try dish is red braised pork – an incredible stew of pork belly chunks braised for hours in soy sauce to a sumptuous rich softness with wonderful fragrant hints of star anise. I always add extra star anise to the pot when cooking this. This one even tempts people who think they don't like Chinese food. Make it at home and serve with mash. 

So there you have a brief introduction to Sichuan food. And maybe you’d like to try that book which started it all off for me? It’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Sichuan peppercorn image courtesy of Max Ronnersjö; all other images taken by Ilya Fisher.

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