On Sichuan Cuisine

July 14, 2014

in Abby Gadbois, Academic Year 2014-2015, Asia, China

You may had heard of Sichuanese cuisine, or szechuan… which is an older translations of 四川. You may have even ordered the infamous Kung-pao Chicken from your favorite take-out place (which is actually pronounced gong-bao jidan 宫保鸡丁) or even gone to a Sichuan style restaurant in Beijing or Shanghai. I am here to tell you, none of that is real Sichaun food. Not even close.

A collection of spices, peppers, and chili powders that are liberally thrown on every Sichuan dish

A collection of spices, peppers, and chili powders that are liberally thrown on every Sichuan dish

I thought that I hated Sichuanese cooking. Honestly, I don’t really remember how or why I got this idea in my head. Possibly, it was last summer when Dreux ordered some insane Sichuan-style dish. I distinctly remember biting into a Sichuan pepper (huajiao 花椒) and a burst of soapy mouth-numbing flavor exploding in my mouth, ruining the rest of the meal. Back in Madison, I would sometimes join Jon and his friends and go to a local Chinese restaurant and order hotpot with half of the broth being clear and the other half a boiling soup of oil, spice, and pain.

My first hotpot in Sichuan. I was still horribly jet lagged and confused, and really couldn't figure out what the shop owner was saying. Eventually she just threw some things together and gave me as little spice (flavor) as possible.

My first hotpot in Sichuan. I was still horribly jet lagged and confused, and really couldn’t figure out what the shop owner was saying. Eventually she just threw some things together and gave me as little spice (flavor) as possible.

When I got word that I was going to Chengdu in Sichuan province, after I stopped freaking out about how excited I was to have gotten the internship, I immediately began worrying about the food. By this point, I had a fairly limited range of dishes I could order with any confidence. Beef noodles, steamed buns, home-style tofu, rice, and dumplings were pretty much ubiquitous on the east coast, but who knew what they would have in the southwest. It was like starting back at square one.

After the hotpot fiasco, I tried to stick with what I knew. This plate of oil, pain, and noodles was completely unlike any beef noodles I had ever eaten before. By then end of the bowl I was crying because of the heat.

After the hotpot fiasco, I tried to stick with what I knew. This plate of oil, pain, and noodles was completely unlike any beef noodles I had ever eaten before. By then end of the bowl I was crying because of the heat.

These past two months, I have eaten a lot of new things. There was the big plate of chicken (da pan ji 大盘鸡) which is an entire chicken, including the innards, diced and boiled in spicy oil with Maddy and Morgan. Scott introduced us to a variety of stomach and tripe based dishes, most of which were pretty good. I’ve eaten a few rabbits, sampled some yak meat, countless plates of mapo tofu (mapo dofu 麻婆豆腐), an abundance of taro and lotus roots, noodles named after the Uyghur autonomous region (xinjian banmian新疆拌面), dozens and dozens of dumplings with a variety of fillings, molasses steamed bread (hong tang mantou 红糖馒头), pig’s feet soup (which I really didn’t like), and and incredible number of bowls of hand-pulled or hand-cut noodles.

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Over the course of many fantastic (and a few terrible) meals, I’ve begun to really appreciate Sichuan’s food. Everything is oily, spicy, and incredibly fresh. Even more so than other areas of China, Sichuanese people insist on the freshest of produce, cooked quickly, and served immediately. I can’t tell you the number of times I have burned myself by quickly chomping down on a piece of eggplant or biting into a dumpling. The heat and oil, in a perverse way, is intended to help keep you cool on a hot summers day. And that huajiao which is responsible for the ma la (麻辣 numbing heat flavor) actually adds a lightness and freshness to dishes that would ordinarily be weighted down by the grease and salt.

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With this in mind Maddy, Morgan and I took a cooking class with one of the Consulate’s Chinese language instructors. Translating her father’s instructions, we tried to copy his deft movements as he prepared fish-flavored eggplant (yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子), tiger skin peppers (hupi qingjiao 虎皮青椒), and a variation on kung pao chicken, by substituting pork for chicken.

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Somehow, we managed to hold our own. Starting from selecting food from the market, learning new knife skills, practicing stir frying peanuts, pork, eggplants, learning how to blister peppers, making sauces, and ultimately standing back as her father made the last two dishes to complete our lunch (twice cooked pork, and fried tomatoes and eggs. Everything was delicious, doused in oil, liberally sprinkled with peppercorns, sugar, and vinegar, and fried to perfection.

Stir-frying eggplants!

Stir-frying eggplants!

Learning how to work with the cleavers.

Learning how to work with the cleavers.

Kung pao pork! It was fantastic!

Kung pao pork! It was fantastic!

Tiger skin peppers were perhaps my favorite dish, lightly spicy with a hint of sweetness and sourness from the sugar and vinegar sauce.

Tiger skin peppers were perhaps my favorite dish, lightly spicy with a hint of sweetness and sourness from the sugar and vinegar sauce.

Fish flavored eggplants, which don't taste like fish at all... instead they are wonderfully sweet and spicy!

Fish flavored eggplants, which don’t taste like fish at all… instead they are wonderfully sweet and spicy!

All in all, I love Sichuan food, but I don’t think that it is something I need to eat anywhere other than Sichuan. There must be something about the Sichuan atmosphere that promotes food that is so spicy that it forces you to slow down, take a breath, talk with your friends, and wait for the cooling affect to take hold.

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