• Sichuan Xiang La Gan Guo (or Sichuan spicy dry pot) combines all of Sichuan’s best flavours in one pot. (Chengdu Food Tours)Source: Chengdu Food Tours
"Everyone makes their own chilli oil, their own pickles or their own spice blends," says a Chengdu local. So what are the other elements that make this Chinese cuisine a favourite?
Shannon Aitken

7 Jan 2019 - 1:41 PM  UPDATED 8 Jan 2019 - 9:40 AM

Sichuan is one of China’s great food destinations, and while its association with chillies seems inescapable, it’s not just all fire and no flavour.

Sichuan cuisine is actually incredibly complex, a dance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, numbingness and, importantly, umami.

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The cuisine is the result of centuries of migration and trading in the region, and today it’s one of the most sought-after cuisines in China. So what’s the attraction? To find out, I spoke to Jordan Porter, a long-term resident of Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, and founder of Chengdu Food Tours.

“Sichuan cuisine has this big, fun, noisy flavour profile that I think really jumps out at people,” he says excitedly. “It’s very bright and colourful, so it’s extremely recognisable. It’s just fun food.”

What many outsiders may not understand about Sichuan cuisine, is that it’s actually incredibly produce-driven.

Sichuan cuisine is actually incredibly complex, a dance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, numbingness and, importantly, umami.

“The Sichuan basin is self-sufficient with food production and food grows here 12 months of the year,” explains Porter. “So ingredients in the markets are changing every month, every week sometimes. There’s big incorporation of new types of ingredients, which includes proteins as well. This is what makes it really fun and interesting.”

This continual reliance on seasonal produce results in people going rogue on even the most classic of dishes. Every restaurant or family have their own iteration of Sichuan’s beloved hui guo rou (twice cooked pork), gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken), mapo doufu (sometimes called grandmother’s tofu), yuxiang rousi (at times called fish-flavoured shredded pork), fuqi fei pian (husband and wife lung slices!) or hot pot. If you’d like to box things in and identify an authentic version of any one dish, you’ll struggle to gain a consensus.

This variability is amplified by the province’s deeply ingrained DIY culture.

“It’s not a hipster thing. Everyone makes their own chilli oil, their own pickles or their own spice blends,” says Porter. “There’s a very home-grown feeling about it, and that makes it extremely diverse.”

Li Hongwei, General Manager of historic Chengdu restaurant Chen Mapo Doufu, agrees that there is a strong sense of home about the cuisine.

“I think that traditional home-cooked dishes have a long-standing culture. They’re highly representative of the cuisine and often appear on people’s tables,” he says.

Elevating this home cooking to the restaurant table is a test of the professionalism of the chef, he tells us.

Mapo tofu

Get Adam Liaw's recipe for mapo tofu right here.

The most representative dish in Sichuan cuisine would have to be mapo doufu, Li says with a laugh – it is the speciality dish of his restaurant after all.  “It’s my favourite dish, but also given that Chen Mapo Doufu has been around since 1862, the dish has been absorbing the local culture for more than 150 years. It now has its own distinctive numbingness, spice, fragrance, silkiness, freshness, tenderness and form.”

Across nearly all Sichuan dishes, however, there are some ingredients that are fundamental to the general characteristics of the cuisine. Green and red peppercorns, garlic and ginger, fresh and dried chillies, a fermented salted black soybean mixture known as douchi, and of course the Sichuan-version of doubanjiang, a reddish-brown salty paste made from fermented broad beans and fresh chillies.

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If you’ve noticed the word fermentation coming up a lot you’re completely right. Porter says fermentation is intrinsic to the cuisine and its umami boost adds breadth to the food’s spice. In fact, some people credit China as being inspirational for many of the world’s fermentation practices, including those used in Europe, Japan and Korea.

This is a process that Sichuan’s DIY crowd also embrace as part of their daily lives. Individuals and restaurants alike frequently make their own fermented vegetables, pao cai, which contributes a wonderful array of complex flavours to whatever they’re cooked or served with. Again, there’s no fixed recipe, but peek into the garden of a Sichuan native and you’ll likely find a water-sealed pot stuffed with a brewing concoction of Chinese cinnamon, star anise, bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, celery, spring onions, ginger, coriander, radish and chillies.

Beyond these distinctive seasonings, however, Sichuan also has a remarkable passion for charcuterie and here again you’ll find locals going their own way with smoked meats and sausages. Stroll the neighbourhoods in winter – peak season for meat preserving – and you’ll see houses festooned with slabs of meat and sausages hung out to air dry.

Finally, another defining ingredient in Sichuan cuisine is the rabbit.

“Two-thirds of all the rabbit that’s eaten in China is eaten in Sichuan,” Porter tells us. “In Beijing, you have duck, in Hong Kong, you’ve got goose and in Chengdu you have rabbit. It’s a protein on every single menu.”

Rabbit head is perhaps the most frequently headlined dish, especially outside Sichuan, but the protein itself is also widely used in less confronting dishes. It’s fried, barbequed, roasted and braised. There are even rabbit-dedicated hot pots.

“It’s an important thing not to miss while you’re in Chengdu and something you might not get anywhere else,” urges Porter.

You can watch Adam Liaw explore the joys of Sichuan cuisine and more 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!  Watch this week's episode exploring Sichuan and Hunan provinces right here.

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