Hot Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine

Sichaun cuisine is almost synonymous to spicy food..

courtesy of schoolweb.dysart.org/.../red_chili_pepper_2.gif
courtesy of schoolweb.dysart.org/.../red_chili_pepper_2.gif


"I knew it was going to be tough going when the menu described the three levels of spiciness as 'Hot,' 'Way Hot' and 'Legal Waiver Required.' " Al Apeno — Spicy Run, Ohio

If you’ve seen a waiver like this on your menu, you know you’re in for some serious assault on your taste buds—and the spicy lover actually welcomes it. Spicy Chinese food is almost synonymous to the general populace as Szechwan cuisine , though there is more to it than spices. Szechwan is a distinctive culinary art involving a variety of spices and a delicate combination of fundamental taste sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and hot. When these different flavors come together in the wok, the result can be lethal to your sweat glands, so grab a cool drink before we proceed with this hot, spicy and totally sexy food hub.

 

What is Szechwan Cuisine?

Call it Szechuan or Szechwan—it’s a matter of preference but the Romanized (or pinyin translation) word is Sichuan which is what we will adhere to for the rest of this hub. Sichuan cuisine originated in the Sichuan province, located on the Southwestern part of China, where it derived its name from the four tributaries of the great Yangtze River. The large basin of Sichuan province is quite naturally well-irrigated and therefore well-suited to the cultivation of rice. Sichuan cuisine encompasses other regional cuisines found in this province—namely Chengdu, Zidong, Chongqing and its milder, less fiery cousin, vegetarian cuisine.

History of Sichuan Cuisine

Sichuan cuisine dated back to the Tang Dynasty, where a 50-volume Sichuan cookbook was produced. Interestingly, most of the foods were as nearly as hot. However, other forces came into play which helped shape Sichuan cuisine to what we know it today.

History tells us that Christopher Columbus found chili peppers in the Bahamas, which he mistook for the Orient. He personally christened it “pimentito” or pepper, thinking that it was black pepper. Two mistaken conclusions can have grave consequences, but not for Columbus—he introduced chili peppers to the world at large, including the Sichuan province.

How did chili peppers find its way to the landlocked, mountain-lined region of Sichuan? History can get contentious as is the case here. Some sources speculated that Indian missionaries brought the chilies with them during their travels along China’s Silk Route, constructed by the Han Dynasty for military and strategic purposes. Others claimed that Chinese merchants trading with Spanish and Portuguese sailors at various seaports introduced chili peppers to the province.

 

Sichuan hot pots--so spicy it can set your mouth on fire.

courtesy of www.chinaodysseytours.com/.../chuan-food.jpeg
courtesy of www.chinaodysseytours.com/.../chuan-food.jpeg

Closer look at Sichuan peppers

A sprinkling of sensation
A sprinkling of sensation

I love Sichuan peppers so much, I wrote a little poem:

 Ecstacy

Dainty ladies

blush

red and brown.

Lavendar escapes

with a kiss of lemon.

A little taste

unleashes

a thousand tingles

pins and needles converge

to hypnotize and numb,

only to resurrect

pain and pleasure combined,

to make dining divine.

Cuisine Shaped by Climatic Factors

Still, that doesn’t fully explain the preponderance of bold spices used in this cuisine. Another factor comes into play—the climate. Given that Sichuan province is both hot and humid, the muggy weather can cause food to spoil easily. To prevent food spoilage, before the invention of refrigeration, preservatives and spices became the natural solution. Foods were salted, pickled, dried and smoked to prolong its usability and the use of strong spices serves to mask any strong flavor resulting from such methods of preservation.

There is another correlation between the use of hot spices and hot weather. Hot spicy foods induce perspiration, which in turns helps the body to cool down naturally. You can say that it’s man’s ingenious way of coping with heat. Spicy Sichuan cuisine does that.

Epicures of Sichuan cuisine, however, will attest to another compelling reason for this fiery cuisine. The inclusion of hot spices stimulate the palate, heightening the sense of taste, which I will gladly attest to, being a spicy lover.

 

Common Ingredients

If you examine the components of a typical Sichuan dish, you will find some common ingredients, used in different ways. Techniques such as stir-frying, roasting, simmering, basting and braising help to bring out the burst of flavor. Let’s introduce the star performers:

  • Sichuan Peppers

There's a war in my mouth." –a Sichuan pepper lover

"My tongue is smiling." Abigail Trillin

When I was first introduced to this feisty pepper, my tongue was numbed with a sensation I cannot quite place. This pin-and-needle sensation bites your tongue and then numbs it, leaving a tingling sensation. But don’t let the numbness lull you into thinking that your senses have gone to asleep. On the contrary, it sharpens your taste buds, so that everything you taste is more appetizing. Hmm, maybe, that’s why spicy lovers remain faithful.

And who is responsible for this indescribable enjoyment?

Sichuan peppers are  technically not peppers. They are dried berries of a shrub from the fagara family. Commonly referred to as “flower pepper” in China, they are native to northern China. It is speculated that Sichuan peppers were used even before the introduction of chili peppers in the 15th century.

Fresh Sichuan peppers are reddish-brown and dry roasting them in a pan will bring out the intense flavor. However, it is not the Sichuan pepper that imparts spiciness in a Sichuan dish—the honor goes to the red chili peppers. Sichuan peppers are there to intensify flavor and the spiciness is increased many folds by using the red chili pepper and Sichuan pepper combination.

Sichuan peppers can be found in Asian supermarkets, though from experience, the quality is not as good. Order them online from specialty stores.

 

My precious stash of Sichuan peppers

Chili Peppers

Often, dried red chili peppers are used in Sichuan cuisine. The hit of spice is caused by the active ingredient, capsaicin. The spice can make you weep, set your tongue on fire and if you are not accustomed to the hit, you may find yourself panting like a thirsty dog. Although this seems self-tormenting, many spicy lovers will tell you of the pleasure of going on a spicy high. The mind clears and if you have sinus, it is sure to clear it.

In authentic Sichuan cuisine, red chili peppers take center stage. If you order red dried chilies with diced chicken, you may find yourself searching for the chicken nuggets in a mountain of hot, seared chili peppers.

Ginger

Ginger adds zing and when they cavort with red chili peppers and Sichuan peppers, it adds intense flavor and oomph. Besides adding flavor to foods, ginger boosts volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds such as gingerols and shogoals that deliver health benefits as well.

Often, ginger is chopped or sliced, even minced and then sauteed in sesame oil to bring out the pungency. Ginger is also the key ingredient of the famous doubanjiang sauce used in Sichuan cooking. Ginger, garlic, scallions are combined with black bean are used to make this sauce.

If you have always wonder about Mala sauce, it is none other than doubanjiang sauce seasoned with chili peppers and Sichuan peppers.

 

Garlic

Garlic lends its pungency to Sichuan cuisine, often acting as a supportive role. It is often used with ginger and chili peppers to give Sichuan cuisine its characteristic taste.

Sesame oil

Sesame, the most ancient of seeds, has roots tracing as far back as 3,000 B.C. was used by the Assyrians Egyptians and the Persians. The oil from toasted sesame seeds, is also a popular ingredient in Chinese cooking. Golden brown and very aromatic, sesame oil has always been the oil of choice in Sichuan cuisine as well.

 

Star Anise

As the name suggests, it is star-shaped and intensely aromatic, quite akin to licorice in smell. It is native to China, Vietnam, Indo-China and Japan. It can be used whole and added directly to stew, hot pots, or to flavor meats. It can also be used  grounded. Grounded star anise and Sichuan peppers are both components of Five Spice powder.

Star anise features strongly in dark soy sauce meats stewed for lengthy periods of time to infuse flavors. It is also one of the needed ingredients used to make marbled eggs, a famous Chinese hors d’oeuvre. Both types of preparations are generally not spicy.

Other ingredients

Other ingredients include soy sauce, dark soy sauce, broad bean paste and the various sauces (some discussed above) and chili garlic sauce and peanuts .

Most of these ingredients can be found in the Asian supermarkets. Some common ingredients (ginger, garlic, soy sauce) can also be found in mainstream supermarkets. Asian spices are best ordered from specialty stores. These spices are best stored in air-tight containers in a cool, dry place. 

Some of the main ingredients used in Sichuan cuisine--white pepper (widely used in Asian cooking), green onion, star anise, ginger and sichuan peppers.

courtesy of farm3.static.flickr.com/2120/2259050453_b006b
courtesy of farm3.static.flickr.com/2120/2259050453_b006b

Five Taste Sensations

Sichuan cuisine is also known for pampering the five taste sensations.

  • Sweet—comes from beet root sugar or cane sugar, also fruits
  • Sour—pickled vegetables, varieties of vinegar (red, rice wine, white, black)
  • Salty—soy sauce, salted fish, smoked duck, flavored salts and regular salt
  • Bitter—dried orange peel, a special bitter melon is used
  • Spicy—discussed above.

 

My version of Sichuan shredded beef incorporating sweet, pungent, sour, salty taste sensations.

My Sichuan tofu with a tangy spicy sauce. Again, notice the combination of the different taste sensations.

Hot Pot Experience in Chengdu

Traditional Sichuan tea-smoked duck served with steamed buns and yummy sauce.

courtesy of farm4.static.flickr.com/3485/3951953531_ca3c3...
courtesy of farm4.static.flickr.com/3485/3951953531_ca3c3...

Regional Variations

Even within Sichuan province itself, there are variations. Chongqing is a branch of Sichuan cuisine. Like true-blue Sichuan cuisine, it is distinctively spicy and bold. Almost 40 different cooking methods are involved, all carefully balanced to bring out flavor and nutrition. The Chinese saying, “People make food their heaven,” couldn’t be more true in the state of Chongqing. Food gushed with an array of tempting flavors. It is also the birthplace of hot pots, where spicy, fragrant broth is steaming hot and diners dip morsels of food to infuse all the rich flavors before dishing out the goodies with the broth. It reminds one of fondue with an Asian twist. Once a seasonal favorite invented to keep warm in the cold winters, it is now enjoyed all year round. In other parts of China and Southeast Asia, this hot pot is also known as steamboat, with clearer, less spicy broth.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan is said to be the birthplace of Sichuan cuisine. It is now one of the worlds’ most important gourmet centers, boosting many firsts—China’s first winery, first tea culture center, first industrial base and first cuisine museum. Hot pots are usual fare, with street vendors selling skewers of organ meats, squid and vegetables, ready for dipping into the spicy broth.

One of the Chengdu’s clever invention of culinary adventures is the tea-smoked duck, where duck is smoked over tea leaves to deliver a delightful flavor. And contrary to notions, not all Sichuan cuisine is spicy as is the case with tea-smoked duck. In fact, only one third of Sichuan cuisine is spicy in nature.

Other variations

Depending on the taste buds of any given country or region, Sichuan cuisine has been adapted by savvy chefs to suit the needs of the people. In America, Sichuan cuisine is “Americanized,” –the level of spiciness is "doctored" down. It tends to be sweeter too. Of course, even within America, Sichuan cuisine tends to be more authentic in Asian enclaves.

This can be said of any cuisine, where adaptation becomes a necessity to cater to the culinary experience and expectations of the general populace.

Below are some more examples of regional variations. Enjoy.

My Americanized Orange Chicken

I made this traditional orange chicken with fresh orange peel instead of dried orange peel(more flavorful) and instead of red chili paste and Sichuan peppers, I use Ketchup and oyster sauce to give it the orange color. The result--not as spicy and le
I made this traditional orange chicken with fresh orange peel instead of dried orange peel(more flavorful) and instead of red chili paste and Sichuan peppers, I use Ketchup and oyster sauce to give it the orange color. The result--not as spicy and le

Sukiyaki--Japanese version of Sichuan hot pot--sweeter and milder with a soy based broth.

courtesy of www.flickspin.com/img/usr/sukiyaki-1
courtesy of www.flickspin.com/img/usr/sukiyaki-1

In Singapore, where 75% of the population is of Chinese origin, steamboat, a version of hotpot is popular. The broth is clear, usually made from chicken.

courtesy of www.newagedentists.com/.../12/steamboat1.jpg
courtesy of www.newagedentists.com/.../12/steamboat1.jpg

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Comments 27 comments

tom hellert profile image

tom hellert 6 years ago from home

A,

Sichuan is waaay to spicy for me I am a spice wuss all yhe dishes here sound and look great- Now I am hungry..

Nice one

TH


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

spicy hehe, good hub and thumbs up again, Maita


wavegirl22 profile image

wavegirl22 6 years ago from New York, NY

"""But don’t let the numbness lull you into thinking that your senses have gone to asleep. On the contrary, it sharpens your taste buds, so that everything you taste is more appetizing. Hmm, maybe, that’s why spicy lovers remain faithful."""

Finally my faithful friend has given me reason to be a little bit more open to "Spicy" food. I have never let myself give in to the burning of my tongue & throat long enough to sharpen my taste buds! But I think the next time there is something spicy in front of me I am going to have a different attitude in my attempt. Funny thing is that my mom (a pretty great cook) and Dad (also a good cooker;) love things spicy . .and I have always been the whimp of the family. HA! Leave it to you to help me 'grow'

As for the rest of this Hub, once again you bring me to that place where I want to know more. How you tie history in to present day usage is extraordinary!

Jiu Yu my friend. . Big thumbs up. . going to tweet this one now and of course I rated upwards, useful and awesome!!!!!

p.s. I am dying to taste your Americanized Orange Chicken!!!It looks so delicious:)))))

p.p.s. I adore you little Sichuan peppers Poem!!!!!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

Tom, love to see you back again. how did your tail-gate party go? Well, spice wuss or not, you can also grow a liking for it--it's good for you. Of course, you're free to stick to your taste preference--just a suggestion. Thnaks for dropping by. I would like to comment on your hubs but you're too high-tech for me. take care!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

Maita, thanks for dropping by. Sorry, I've been a little delinquent--in Boston now but will be happy to visit your hub when I get home.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

Shari, so good to see you again. My Jia Yu pal, you're so kind to say so many nice things about the hub--more than I deserve. But I'm going to bask in them--i need them to survive this sometimes difficult life. Anyway, give spicy food a go--you'll find out why spicy lovers love spicy food--they're that good and healthy.

Thanks for rating it up and tweeting it. Many hugs and enjoy your summer.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Great job! I can almost taste the wonderful heat!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 6 years ago

This is an awesome hub, anglnwu! I love spicy Chinese food. Sichuan cuisine has had a huge influence on Thai cooking, especially in the central area of the country (where many Chinese-Thais live). That picture of tea-smoked duck almost made me drool. LOL


Money Glitch profile image

Money Glitch 6 years ago from Texas

Superb hub! I started sweating from the heat of the spice on the pictures. :) Really love spicy hot foods, love the breaking out in sweat, the crying, nose running, the numbness in the mouth, the whole nine yards.

If I could just figure how for it not to affect my stomach so negatively. For that reason, I've become a spicy hot wuss. :( Rating up, while I'm still drooling. :)


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

Just this week I stood in front of the Chinese spices in the store, wondering which ones to buy. Now, thanks to you, I have a list which will serve me well.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Anginwu, Everything looks good but I have to eat the milder varieties of food. My stomach can't talk the hot peppers any more as I've had too many years of medicine. Your pictures and explanations were great.


Cassidella profile image

Cassidella 6 years ago

Hi Anglnwu,

This hub is hot-hot-hot! Your recipes look good! I do enjoy somewhat spicy foods and Chinese food but never tried this Sichuan pepper before, and think I'll just take your word for it!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

habee, thanks for dropping by with your comments.

Om, right, Thai cuisine can definitely kick some b. too--they definitely can give Sichuan cuisine a run for its money. Thanks and always a pleasure to have you come by.

MG, sorry about your stomach not agreeing with too spicy food. Many people have that problem. However, if you make your own food, you can always adjust the level of spice. Thanks again for coming by.

Sheila, great this hub comes in handy. Good luck on your cooking with Chinese spices.

Pamela, thanks for taking time off to comment. When you cook your own food, you can actually get to decide how much spices go into it, so you still enjoy Sichuan cooking without too much of the spices.

Casidella, good to see you again. Thanks for your positive comments. Yes, try Sichuan peppers, you will like it.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

I like Chinese food. I found spicy food in here. I thought I'll add more rice to finished my dinner with this food. Sichuan hot pot is the best. Thanks for share with us.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

Agreed--Sichuan hot pot is yummy. Thanks for dropping by. Enjoy your food.


TheListLady profile image

TheListLady 6 years ago from New York City

Beautiful photos - and I love spicy Sichuan cuisine - and fortunately living here in NYC I can find it. Yay! We are finally learning here in the US how healthy spicy foods are in the diet. Living in S. Korea I got to enjoy many spicy foods that were outstanding. Wow!

Wonderful hub. Thanks so much - rated way up!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago Author

You can't beat NYC for diversity and great food experience. I love visiting the place. Thanks, Listlady, for dropping by with your great comments. Thanks for rating it up too.


jcnasia profile image

jcnasia 5 years ago

Sichuan food really is wonderful, a truly culinary conflict. Great post!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 5 years ago Author

Thanks, jcnasia!


rjsadowski profile image

rjsadowski 4 years ago

An excellent introduction. Do you have any recipes of your own which you care to share?


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 4 years ago Author

Thanks, rjsadowski, yes--if you check my profile page, there are a number of recipes there.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

Awesome anginwu. I love the spipcy stiff. Wonderful information and pictures. Great job.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 4 years ago Author

KoffeeKlatch, I love spicy food too. Maybe, we should hang out and go the Spicy City, the Chinese restaurant near my house that serves extra spicy food. Thanks for dropping by.


rjsadowski profile image

rjsadowski 4 years ago

A great introduction to Sichuan cooking. You should remind people that you can easily adjust the level of heat in each recipe to suit your own taste.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 4 years ago Author

rjsadowski, good point. The beauty of cooking is that you can always adjust taste to your liking. Thanks for dropping by to comment.


yzenith profile image

yzenith 2 years ago from Hicksville

The hot pot looks really good, That's the second pic, That's Tofu?


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 2 years ago Author

Hi yzenith, thanks for commenting. I love hot pots, especially on a cold day. The hot pot has fried tofu.

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