If you think Sichuan food is all about spice and tongue-numbing sensations, you are wrong. It is one element of course and an important one. But there is a lot more to Sichuan food than that.
The Chinese have a phrase that neatly depicts Sichuan food 一菜一格，百菜百味（yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei). In essence, it means every dish tastes different, and a hundred dishes should have a hundred different tastes.
So, if your forays into Sichuan food have thus far revolved around red chili oil and Sichuan peppers, you’ve only scraped the surface. There’s so much more.
Sichuan food is never simple. It should have complex flavours and stimulate all your senses. The unique use of Sichuan pepper, chili and douban sauce (chili bean sauce), combines with classic Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, black vinegar, and Shaoxing wine to create a deeply addictive explosion of spice, salt, sour and sweet flavours that most definitely add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Let’s start by introducing some typical Sichuan flavours and dishes.
1. Gongbao Chicken (宫保鸡丁 gong bao ji ding)
This classic chicken stir-fry dish is made with peanut, spring onions and cucumber. Gongbao refers to the title of dish creator, Ding Baozhen (1820-1886). Ding was the official governor in Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty and it is a testament to the dish’s popularity and, no doubt to the respect he enjoyed, that people named it after him.
Although this dish comes with an inviting bright red glow from its sauce and red chilli, it is not a very spicy dish. It has a sweet, sour and savoury flavour with a hint of spice from the tongue-tickling Sichuan pepper. The most interesting thing about this dish is the texture. The chicken is carefully marinated and coated with starch, allowing you to experience the tenderness of the succulent meat, the refreshing cucumber, the crunch of the peanuts and the aromatic spring onion flavour all in one tantalising mouthful. Need I say more? It really is the perfect combination.
2. Mouthwatering chicken (口水鸡 kou shui ji)
This is another classic chicken dish. It’s earned the label mouthwatering, because this dish is so hot and mouth-numbing that it will certainly make your mouth water. This cold dish is also known for its tender and juicy texture, achieved through the chef’s perfect judgment as to when the boiling chicken is just cooked and then quickly plunged into ice water. When cut through, the chicken should be 肉白骨红(rou bai gu hong) which means white in the flesh and red on the bone. Imagine a piece of juicy chicken with spicy red oil and fiery Sichuan pepper combined with the sourness from the vinegar and saltiness from the soy. It truly is mouth-watering.
3. Twice-cooked pork （回锅肉 hui guo rou)
The name of this dish refers to its method of cooking. The pork is first boiled with Sichuan peppercorns and Shaoxing wine and then fried with Chinese leeks in a wok. This unique technique releases the flavour from the pork minus the often off-putting taste of grease and fat. Another important element of this dish is the chili bean paste. This sauce is key to many Sichuan dishes. It is made of a blend of salted chili pepper and preserved broad beans. It is spicy and salty with a hint of fermentation. Partner this with a thin slice of pork belly… yum!
4. Fish-flavoured aubergine (鱼香茄子 yu xiang qie zi）
If you have been to Kewei’s Kitchen, you will know this dish already from the menu. However, I have it on the menu as aubergine with garlic sauce, given that the ‘fish flavoured’ (yu xiang) element might have alarmed some of our many vegetarian customers. This dish has absolutely nothing to do with fish, but the sauce is certainly one of the most popular Sichuan flavours as you will find fish-flavoured pork, fish-flavoured prawn, and even tofu in Sichuan. So how do you create this fish flavour without any fish? The clever Sichuan chef combines soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, chili-bean paste, and a good amount of garlic and ginger. There is nothing artificial here. Just good old-fashioned creativity and skill. And again, this is not a terribly hot dish but rather a delightful symphony of sweet, sour and savoury with a hint of spiciness.
5. Sichuan water-poached fish (水煮鱼 shui zhu yu)
Last but not least, the water-poach method is yet another absolute classic Sichuan cooking style, which results in the most soft and tender fish you can imagine bursting with flavour. The fish and vegetables are first quickly poached and placed into a bowl, with a generous handful of chili, Sichuan peppers and garlic sprinkled and then topped by some hot oil to release the fragrance. The satisfying sound of the sizzle is sure to light up all your senses! Now, as Sichuan dishes go, this one does live up to the general reputation for the region’s food as it is pretty heavy on the chili and the Sichuan peppercorns, but if you’ve never experienced that mouth-numbing sensation before, it’s a great one to start with. There’s always a first time for everything of course, and, you never know, you might be on your way to your new food addiction.