I feel like a little culinary anthropologist some days, trekking around China to all sorts of odd places, snapping photos of foods I’ve tasted and then trying to discover more about them.
Sichuan though, was relatively easy – everyone in Sichuan is an obsessed food fanatic and food is a constant topic of conversation, so I had my many questions happily answered.
Sichuan cuisine has been unfairly pegged in the Western world as consisting of nothing but mouth-numbing sichuan pepper (hua jiao) and paralytic amounts of chili. Not so – Sichuan cuisine is complex and diverse, using sour, sweet, salty, astringent and spicy flavours, and many dishes are – gasp – not spicy at all. As the locals say, it’s all about balance.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list of famous Sichuan dishes, although some on the list are very well known and can be found all over the province. It’s simply a list of ten foods I enjoyed so much I’m desperate to try them again, and I hope you enjoy them too.
Like a rite of passage for every visitor to Sichuan, there is no way to ease yourself into Sichuan hotpot – you just have to go for it, boots and all and curse and sweat as your mouth goes numb, your eyes water and your nose runs. And still you can’t stop compulsively dipping more things into that pot to cook.
The pot arrives – the surface slick with red chili oil and hundreds of chilies bobbing up and down in the soup stock. (In our case we took the coward’s option and ordered a big pot of mild stock with a smaller portion of devil-red chili soup in the centre.) The pot goes on the burner in the centre of your table and when steam starts to rise from the surface you can dip in pieces of meat, vegetables and noodles to cook in the fiery soup.
Once cooked, your dipping sauce is an individual choice, concocted from sesame oil, finely chopped garlic, scallions and coriander.
All around you are pillars of steam rising from each table, red, sweating faces, loud conversations and gallons of beer being consumed to assuage the heat. It’s an experience not be missed.
2. Braised Pepper Rabbit 烧椒兔
Rabbit is popular in Sichuan – braised, grilled, barbecued or in hotpot – and is just as tasty as could be because Sichuanese chefs have a way of transforming what can be a dry and tasteless meat into something tender and juicy.
This dish – shaojiao tu – of finely sliced braised tender rabbit with hot green chillies char-grilled until the edges blacken and they take on a sweet, smoky taste, is dressed with sesame oil, a hint of sichuan pepper and the barest touch of soy.
3. Tea-smoked duck 樟茶鸭
Not all Sichuan food is spicy, and zhāngchá yā or tea-smoked duck is a great example. The duck is smoked until the skin is sweet and crispy, then finely sliced and served cold. The smoky taste is far from strong, just giving the meat a subtle richness.
La rou is preserved pork – salty, fatty, and smoky – a little but not quite like bacon and often a revelation for people who like to eat their meat completely lean.
Sliced wafer thin，Sichuan la rou is stir-fried until the fat becomes translucent and the edges crisp and curl, together with sweet fried scallions and smoky dried chilies, the fat lending a richness without being oily. It’s also used to season soups and braises, adding a strong, salty meat flavour.
A soft-set tofu made fresh daily, dou hua is a popular breakfast food in rural Sichuan where it offers a warm, savoury and filling start to the day, served with lajiao (chili paste) and scallions for extra taste.
Home-made tofu tastes nothing like the bought variety, with a soft smooth texture and a very comforting slightly nutty taste.
I’m not a fan of tripe. As a child my mother described in morbid detail the smell of tripe cooking in my Scottish grandmother’s house, the horrid texture and putrid taste, and ever since then I’ve thought tripe and all things intestinal best avoided. That is, until I came to Sichuan, where they make wafer thin slices of beef tripe and ox-tongue taste so extraordinarily rich and spicy, you might just eat a whole plate of the stuff without thinking about it, as I did.
Drowned in slippery chili oil and dressed with a refreshing mixture of chopped coriander, scallions, peanuts and ground green Sichuan pepper, this dish just seemed to finish itself.
7. Dan Dan Noodles 担担面
Here’s a dish you’re likely to encounter in many overseas Chinese restaurants, but its origins are here in Sichuan. The name comes from the bamboo pole carried over the shoulder by noodle vendors, walking the streets with noodles on one side and sauces on the other.
Traditionally, fine wheat noodles are topped with finely diced pickled mustard tuber, spiced meat, and chili oil in a light broth.
I was served so many variations of dan dan mian in Sichuan I began to be unsure which version was correct. Some were served in broth, some served in noodle water, and some had no soup but were mixed with sesame paste and ground peanuts. Which ever way you prefer them, they all make a hugely satisfying snack.
8. Sticky Rice Balls 糯米糍粑
Served three to a stick, these sticky rice balls (nuomi ciba 糯米糍粑) are flash-deep-fried then coated in syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The outside has a pleasant crunch and the inside is smooth and chewy. A great food for eating as you walk. 每个棍儿上串着三个糯米球，这些糯米糍粑炸得油亮油亮的，并且涂上了糖浆，撒上了芝麻。外面一层很脆，里面滑腻耐嚼。适合边走边吃。
9. Sweet Jelly with Red Sugar Syrup 红糖米糕
This is the perfect cooling end to a meal filled with spice – a perfectly sized bowl of smooth, cool rice jelly topped with red sugar syrup.
10. Salt and Sichuan Pepper Butter Crisps 椒盐酥
There are times when you eat a food and instantly know you’ll spend the next five years trying to exactly recreate the same taste, texture and look, probably unsuccessfully.
The Gongting Bakery, near the Wenshu Temple in Chengdu, is busy from dawn until dusk because their cakes and biscuits are completely addictive.
Their Sichuan pepper and salt crisps – jiaoyan su – are tiny sweet butter biscuits flavoured with ground dark green Sichuan pepper and salt. One makes your lips tingle, and three is the limit before you stop tasting altogether.
The intensity of flavour no doubt comes from using absolutely freshly picked Sichuan pepper, and so my attempts to replicate these back in Australia will go like this:
1. Tries tested and true simple butter biscuit recipe with addition of Sichuan pepper bought in Chinatown. Not good enough.
2. Has friend send over Sichuan pepper from China – almost good enough, but not quite.
3. Orders Sichuan pepper tree from specialty plant nursery at massive expense, and waits a whole year for the first pepper harvest – perfection at last.
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