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Food writer Fuschia Dunlop on Sichuan’s firey cuisine

It’s easy to forget that China is more of a continent than a country: its vast territory includes deserts and rainforests, high mountains and fertile plains, salt lakes and rolling meadows. The Sichuan region, including the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu, has its own dialect, a unique teahouse culture and an outstanding culinary tradition.

The most famous characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its fiery quality, which results from the generous use of red chili peppers. Dried in the sun, blood red and shiny or marinated in salt and wine, chillies are at the heart of regional cuisine. They are inventively used in many local dishes. Sizzled in oil, they give the “burnt chilli taste”, which forms the basis for Gong Bao chicken and countless vegetable stir-fries. In combination with Sichuan pepper, they are used in extremely powerful, numbing and hot dishes. And although spices may be the most distinctive taste in cuisine, the most salient feature of Sichuan cuisine is indeed the bold combination of different flavors: sweet and sour “lychee taste”, delicate “fragrant, juicy taste” and fresh, light taste. Ginger Juice Flavor ”for example.

Sichuan pepper is one of the oldest Chinese spices. It has an intoxicating aroma that carries hints of wood and citrus peel and has a numbing effect on the mouth. The taste and smell are incomparable and most people quickly succumb to its aromatic charm. A popular explanation for its widespread use in Sichuanese cuisine is that its numbing effects enable the consumption of more chilies than would otherwise be humanly possible. An edited excerpt from The Food of Sichuan published by Bloomsbury (RRP: £ 30).

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