Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where we’re diving deep into Asian cuisines for the month of August, which further means, since I love tying a week together thematically whenever possible, that this week we’re talking about Sichuan food. We’ve covered a couple Sichuan recipes on the site before, but here we’re going to do a more thorough discussion of what exactly Sichuan food is, how it relates to Chinese food as a whole, and how you can get into it.
The Pulsing, Burning Heart
Now, while the two recipes I’ve covered on the site that represent Sichuan food might not be the most well-known recipes to American readers, it’s worth noting that there ARE more common Sichuan foods that I suspect the average American has probably tried once or twice. Specifically, as I noted in our post about foods with names, Kung Pao (or Gung Bao, as it’s more correctly written) Chicken is named for a man who was GOVERNOR of Sichuan.
Seen here just before telling Mushu to go find the goddamn Stone Dragon.
So Kung Pao Chicken, Beef, Shrimp, whatever, all are derived from Sichuan food. In a more moist meal option, a common pre-meal option in American restaurants before a Chinese dinner is soup, and of the ‘classic’ Chinese soups, it’s really just Egg-Flower and Hot-and-Sour. Which, if you read our previous discussions about Sichuan food, it should be pretty easy to guess which one is Sichuan. If you DIDN’T read our previous discussions, don’t worry, I’ll re-cap and expand on what we covered.
Sichuan cuisine is known, in China and abroad, as the Spicy food of Chinese cuisine. A good comparison would be Tex-Mex cuisine in American food: heavily seasoned, very distinct flavors. Other cuisines can put out really spicy products (eg, Nashville Hot Chicken), but in general, the impression is that cuisine is the “hot” one.
Like with this pot of bubbling Chili. Which is what this is a picture of. Don’t check Monday’s Post.
The reasons for this are somewhat complicated, but one reason for Sichuan cuisine in particular to be spicy is purely logical: Sichuan province is a relatively humid part of China, meaning that food spoils faster. And capsaicin, the active element in hot peppers, is an anti-bacterial, anti-microbial agent. Thus, Sichuan food loves chili oil, pepper mixes, and chilies because, in the era before refrigeration and rigorous understandings of germs, people who ate spicy foods just straight up got sick less often. Which is something that China actually half-figured out much sooner than Western medicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine held that the humid air of the region needed to be opposed by spicy peppers, which would “warm” you internally, purifying you of the excess water-energies. Which is SO CLOSE to the actual process that it’s kind of heartwarming to see: I always find it inspiring when systems that arose before modern science still manage to figure out and address scientific and/or medical issues.
I also just recently discovered that Sichuan province was the heart of the Shu Han kingdom, with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, also being the capital of Shu. This isn’t super relevant to the food-scene, but is important for students of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or fans of the Dynasty Warrior games, since it now means we all imagine Guan Yu eating spicy chicken and giggling about Sichuan peppercorns. (Tragically, since hot peppers are actually a new world crop, we have to acknowledge that Guan Yu’s spicy chicken probably wasn’t SUPER spic, but we can hope.)
Guan Yu was one of many men so rad in life that he was promoted to being a God after his passing.
Presumably, in Heaven, he lives in what he calls a “Guan-dominium”
Historical hilarity aside, the fact is that Sichuan food is immensely popular in China, and in other countries. It’s considered the heart of Chaun or Western Chinese cuisine, which is one of a couple ways China breaks up their cuisines. (China is, interestingly, one of the few nations with a huge range of terrains: deserts, tropics, temperate and even sub-arctic areas, along with big rivers, mountains, etc. So different regions use different ingredients and methods: meaning that Southeast Chinese food is not like Northern Chinese food, is not like Western, etc.)
But what makes Sichuan distinct, other than the heat? Glad you asked, because I really need to change topics, so here’s a great place for a chapter break.
Pillars of the Porcine Community
The first thing that distinguishes Sichuan cuisine distinct from other regions is something I alluded to a second ago: Sichuan cuisine has less fish than other Chinese cuisines, since it’s relatively distant from the sea. As such, it’s a source for pork, beef, and chicken recipes, and freshwater shrimp, classically. Of course, in the modern era, such things are much more easily transported and changed, but it is part of what makes Sichuan food distinct: there’s a fair amount of pork, especially, in Sichuan foods.
Making a pound of Sichuan Green Beans requires 1/4 lb of ground pork, for instance. Even their VEGGIES are 1/4 pig.
After that, there’s three main flavor profiles that speak to Sichuan tastes, the first we’ve already covered ad nauseum, in that the numb-spicy mà lá taste has been the root of the previous two Sichuan recipes, and was extensively covered in those posts. However, it is not the only pillar of Sichuan cooking. There are two other sauces/flavors that are core to Sichuan food. And here, now, we’re going to talk about them.
The first one is “Fish-fragrant”, which paradoxically neither contains nor is used on any fish at all: it instead refers to a sauce made of fermented bean paste, black vinegar, sugar, and chilis (often pickled ones). It’s typically mixed with garlic, ginger, and scallion for added flavor. The name is supposedly a reference to the fact that the sauce USED to be used on river fish, whose meat tends to have a somewhat muddy flavor, and therefore calls for a bold and fragrant sauce to hide the lesser meat. The story goes that, long ago, a housewife had leftover sauce from a dinner of such fish, and ended up using it to season a dish of eggplant the next day, to the approval of her family, who dubbed it “fish-fragrant eggplant”. Others assert that the name can be translated to imply “Sichuan-Hunan”, referring to the mingling of two regions’ cooking styles. Regardless of which is true, most people believe the dish began in Sichuan, and the dish is notable for being relatively spice-free.
If you don’t get this joke, I don’t think we can be lovers.
Which is a REALLY Weird line until you figure it out.
Following that is what is known in Chinese as Guai Wei, which translates to “Strange Flavor”, and is the hard mode of Sichuan food, because it’s the flavor profile that’s most centered in Sichuan: the spicy mala and fishy Yuxiang profiles are popular in many regions of China, while guaiwei is…less so. The root of the formula is nutty+acid: specifically, sesame paste or peanut butter, mixed with vinegar. To this you can add spiciness, sweetness, saltiness, even straight up Fish-Fragrant components or sauce.
Beyond this, Sichuan food is generally noted for two phenomena (and the fact that I properly pluralized phenomenon at 1 AM after roughly a bottle of wine and 3 beers is one of many reasons I’m one ‘cool’ dude. (Inverted commas added for the protection of the integrity of the word “cool”)):
This was the first human result I got when I searched “cool guys”. And, I mean…fucking nailed it, right? !
The first is the scope of flavors involved. As you might have noticed, fish-fragrant and strange-flavor are both complicated mixtures of flavors. And Mala, even as a source of spiciness also uses several components. Sichuan cooking is not like Japanese cooking, striving for a clean, simple palate. No, Sichuan cooking is about balancing 6-7 layers of flavor, mixing bold spices like star anise with chili peppers, garlic, and vinegar. Sichuan has dishes that aren’t spicy, and even some that aren’t very complicated, but few that rely on less than 3-4 flavors.
The latter is that it’s surprisingly WET. For a culture eating chliis to reduce water energies, most Sichuan meals are not simply moist, but out and out soaked: One of the signature dishes of Sichuan cuisine that I haven’t touched on yet is Hot-Pot, a dish where a divided bowl of two broths is brought to the table, simmering over fire, and you cook your meats and veggies in the half you prefer (typically a “standard” and a “spicy” side). Other Sichuan dishes are characterized by being bathed in chili oil, or sitting in sauce/broth. The idea of Chinese food as a heavily sauced cuisine is heavily influenced and shaped by Sichuan tastes.
This is ALSO the Driest Sichuan dish I know of.
”Of which I know”.
And that’s Sichuan Cuisine 101. I only had so much space/time to get this together (as implied by the fact that it is not REALLY up when I said it would be), so if there’s something here I touched on that interests you, I heavily encourage you to investigate it on your own. This is just, to steal a metaphor from the Matric, me showing you the door, and cracking it open a hair. You look as far in as you want, and walk through if you choose. Me, I gotta go to bed. See you Monday!
MONDAY: PAKORA, AN INDIAN FOOD WITH ALMOST NO CURRY. YES, I UNDERSTAND THAT’S CONFUSING. WE’LL TALK ABOUT IT.
THURSDAY: I DON’T OWE YOU AN EXPLANATION. LET ME SLEEP, DAMN YOU.