When chilli was brought to China around 300 years ago, it quickly found a home in the Sichuan province. It was as if the predominately sweet Sichuan food was crying out for some heat. Crying really loudly, it would seem.
Ever since 'hot and spicy' have been the words most associated with Sichuan cuisine. A heat that brings a flush to the cheeks and tears to the eyes. In fact, the kind of hot and spicy that Westerners eat on a dare.
While it's all fun and games until someone sues, the fact is that Sichuan food is so much more than just 'hot'. It's an ancient, complex cuisine that has been refined over centuries. It's one of the eight major Chinese cuisines, and in 2011 UNESCO recognised Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, as a city of gastronomy. Clearly, something more than mere spice is going on here.
Sichuan cuisine relies on a balance of seven flavours, instead of the traditional five. These are salty, sweet, bitter, acid, pungent, nutty, and of course, spicy.
In fact, Sichuan cuisine relies on a balance of seven flavours, instead of the traditional five. These are salty, sweet, bitter, acid, pungent, nutty (savoury), and of course, spicy. The spice, as we know it, is called 'ma la' - ma (Sichuan peppercorns), la (red chillis) - and while it is included in most Sichuan cooking, it should rarely dominate. Balancing all seven flavours is key.
Pepper berries and chilli bring the spice
The famous Sichuan peppercorn that gives dishes like kung pao chicken their distinctive flavour, isn't actually pepper at all. It's a dried red berry from the prickly ash tree and it isn't even particularly hot. What it is, however, is tongue-numbing. There's a molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool that is mildly anaesthetic, causing tingling and numbness when it lands in your mouth. So, not 'hot' exactly, just a bit mind-blowing.
Find the recipe for kung pao chicken here.
It's fair to say that being able to handle the heat of Sichuan pepper is also associated with a certain type of manliness. Mao Zedong famously said, “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper, and he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight." So, there's that...
There's a reason the Sichuan province embraced chilli with such gusto: the monsoonal weather is terrible. Oppressively hot and steamy summers give way to freezing, wet winters. Is it any wonder the people needed something to cut through all that rain?
"Once you start growing chilli, you're soon eating it in abundance... After that, there's no going back."
"My grandmother used to feed us raw chilli in the winter time," recalls Carol Deng, who grew up in the city of Leshan (Jiading), but moved to its sister city Hervey Bay in Queensland in the late 90s. "Her biggest fear was that we would get rheumatoid arthritis at the ripe old age of five."
There's also the fact that all the humidity makes Sichuan an exceptional chilli-growing region. It grows prolifically throughout this "land of plenty" region.
"Once you start growing chilli, you're soon eating it in abundance," laughs Deng. "After that, there's no going back. Food doesn't taste balanced without the spice of chilli and pepper."
Give it some pungency
At the risk of not convincing anyone that Sichuan cuisine is more than 'spicy', garlic and ginger are next on the list. This is one of the few combinations that can stand up to chilli and pepper, forming the 'pungency' that a balanced Sichuan dish relies on. Just like chilli's health-giving properties (as relayed by Grandma Deng), garlic and ginger are also said to have many health benefits in Chinese culture.
Get the recipe for Sichuan salt and pepper king prawns here.
Not quite barking bitterness...
Before chilli came on the scene, the cassia bark (a stronger form of cinnamon) was the spice of choice for Sichuan locals. Its bitterness complemented the heat of Sichuan pepper beautifully. Cassia is one of the five spices in Chinese five spice powder, along with star anise, fennel seed, Sichuan pepper and cloves. It comes into its own in dishes like slow-braised pork hock, smoked mud fish, mapo tofu and in making a master stock. You can substitute cinnamon for cassia, though its bitterness is not quite as strong, so take care to find the right balance, especially with sweet.
Before chilli came on the scene, the cassia bark was the spice of choice for Sichuan locals.
... But a little bit nutty
Peanut and sesame oils and soy often provide the depth of 'nutty' or 'savoury' flavour that Sichuan balance requires. Fermented bean pastes can also enhance the savoury complexity of a dish. Nuttiness is what forms the deep, low notes of a well-balanced recipe, rounding out sweet, spicy top notes. It's the kind of flavour that plays to umami taste or xian to the Chinese.
Click here for this oh-so-easy weeknight recipe.
Salty mouth feels
Salt works hard to enhance the sweetness of a dish and calm down bitterness. You'll only notice that a dish is "salty" if too much has been added and the other flavours are overpowered. Add just the right amount, and you won't taste salt at all. Rather, a piquant quality will be added to the dish. Every flavour will be intensified and the food will taste nicely stable in the mouth.
You'll only notice a dish is "salty" if too much has been added and the other flavours are overpowered.
Acidic in the middle
Playing the middle notes of the Sichuan symphony are the acid ingredients like vinegar, wine, citrus, monosodium glutamate, and even onions and shallots. Acidic flavours hit the 'sour' taste buds and intensify xian by tempering other flavours like spicy and nutty. Sichuan cuisine uses plenty of preserved vegetables to intensify the acidic notes of a dish.
Ironically, Sichuan peppers are also highly acidic and sweet. It's the acid flavour that stops the spiciness from becoming one-dimensional and overpowering. It draws the spiciness out and introduces to it a sweetness.
Make it in minutes, here.
A sweet note to end
It's true that once you get past the intense heat of spice, it is sweetness that remains on the tongue. Sichuan cooking enhances this through balancing all six flavours with a liberal dose of sweet. Unlike Cantonese food, which is distinctively sweet, Sichuan's sweetness is gently pulled out by the spicy notes and perfectly balanced within the seven flavours.
You can watch Adam Liaw explore the joys of Sichuan on Destination Flavour China Wednesday at 7.30pm on SBS, replay at 9.35pm Sundays on SBS Food (Ch 33), then later via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more!
This is a simple spice mix made from toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns and salt flakes.
Firm white fish fillets are poached gently in a spiced broth and served with blanched bok choy.
This dish is another happy marriage. Australians love sang choi bao – it’s a classic suburban Chinese restaurant dish that everyone grew up eating. And what better to pair it with than lamb, Australia’s favourite protein. Eggplant works really well with lamb, so this dish is just a combination of best mates. Prepare to marinate the lamb a day ahead.
The ‘numbing’ part comes from the effects of Sichuan peppercorns, which do indeed, numb your mouth slightly.
This is a version of the classic Australian take on Chinese sweet and sour pork, a dish often thought of as daggy, but one that, when done well, has a beautiful balance of salt, vinegar and subtle sweetness. This recipe also carries heat from the chilli and sichuan pepper, both of which combine well with this particular cut of goat.
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