5 Ways Sichuan Food Brings the Heat

published Aug 12, 2016
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I do not remember a time when I did not love spicy food. I grew up eating Sichuan food and I can almost imagine my mom introducing me to solids with a healthy dose of chilies. The brazen heat that is so enticing and exotic to so many people is my comfort food. When I crave something familiar, it’s not mac-and-cheese that I reach for, but red oil wontons and mapo tofu. It’s these dishes that tempt my taste buds, tease my sense of smell, and evoke a powerful feeling of nostalgia.

Sichuan food is undoubtedly one of China’s most popular regional cuisines, conquering the world over with its fiery nature. The hotpot, one of Sichuan’s most recognized dishes, is essentially a boiling pot of delicious fiery liquid in which a wide variety of ingredients are cooked. There’s also twice-cooked pork, dry-fried chicken, dan dan mian, and steamed pork with rice flour.

Much like the cuisines of the rest of the world, Sichuan food evolved around the dictates of nature, from a need to find clever ways of preserving food in the brutally hot and muggy climate of the region. Food was often salted, smoked, dried, and pickled to prevent spoilage and the use of ginger, peppercorns, mustards, chilis, and other spices complemented and/or masked the strong flavor from these preservation methods.

The result is a cuisine that is not a flat one-dimensional thing; rather, it is nuanced with bold ingredients playing with each other to create a harmony of flavors that lingers with you long before the last grain of rice has been eaten. Here are five ways Sichuan food brings the heat

(Image credit: Jenny Huang)

5 Ways Sichuan Food Brings the Heat

1. Sichuan Peppercorns

Long before the Portuguese introduced chillies to Sichuan some 400 years ago, the food of the region was already well known for its heat from the Sichuan peppercorn. This little nub of a spice imparts a lemony aroma and intense tingling qualities to many of the most popular of dishes, including mapo tofu and boiled fish and tofu.

The pin-and-needle sensation that bites your tongue when you first taste the Sichuan peppercorn is truly unique. This numbing effect actually sharpens your taste buds, so that everything you taste is more appetizing.

Tip: The peppercorn can be used both whole and ground up. Try toasting the whole husk in oil, then using the citrusy pepper-infused oil to create a simple stir-fry.

2. Fermented Broad Bean Chili Paste

One of the cuisine’s most important ingredients, the soul of Sichuan food, is fermented broad bean chilli paste or doubanjiang. Made from fermented broad beans, chillies, salt, rice, and spices, this nutty and salty paste has an earthy spiciness with notes of sweetness that results from the fermentation process.

Much like its Korean counterpart, gochujang, its uses are limitless and a Sichuan kitchen is nothing without it. The flavor, though, is very different, much more pungent and more spicy than sweet.

The best kind is produced in the town of Pixian through a long and careful process that often takes months. The paste is usually fried in oil until fragrant at the start of a recipe as a base for a dish. Well known dishes such as twice cooked pork would not be quite the same without the anchoring of this chili paste. Nowadays this paste is easily found in all Chinese stores and even online.

3. Chili Peppers

Liberal quantities of dozens of other types of chilis are also employed to add heat and flavor: red and green, big and small, fiery and mild. From pickling fresh chilis with tender ginger and Chinese mustard to scorching dried chillies to bring out the earthy smokiness, the Sichuanese cook employs a bevy of different techniques to bring out the unique qualities of each type of pepper.

Personally, I always keep dried hot chilies on hand. You can always find big bags of them in Chinese stores or, if you see Thai chilies, those are good as well. Fresh peppers are wonderful when used in quick stir-fries. Here in the US the options are not always wide so I usually just buy something that is meatier but still spicy.

4. Chili Oil

A Sichuan kitchen would not be complete without chili oil. The common chili oil is made simply with dried chili flakes and hot oil, but sometimes additional spices may be added. This oil is then used to the flavor the noodles that serve as a simple everyday meal or heated over a stove and poured as a final flourish over fish.

Tip: As a complement to the heat, Sichuan dishes often call for a touch of something sour, such as a dash of Chinese vinegar, or a little bit of sweetness from a pinch of sugar. Each lick of heat is incomplete without these balancing flavors.

5. Temperature

The Chinese believe that eating hot foods during hot weather allows the body to better cool itself. So on any given day during the summer, you will always find crowds of people indulging in the favorite Sichuan pastime of hotpot. Men and women sit outside in barebones hole-in-the-walls over steaming pots, usually enjoying raucous conversations.

This emphasis on literal heat also extends to the rest of the cuisine. Dishes are usually cooked quickly and served steaming hot from the stove. This temperature heat further enhances the bold spices, chilis, and Sichuan peppercorns used.