In a world that constantly bombards us with information, the spread of knowledge now passes through easier and more familiar concepts that sound more like bullet-points rather than real pieces of information. Culture, in all its expressions, is the main victim of this process, losing the myriad of peculiarities and original features that make one culture different from another. There’s literally no time to get into detail. Cuisine is a clear example, where entire complex civilization with a longstanding and diversified culinary culture are often unified under few labels and signature dishes that are of easy comprehension and recognition for the average reader. In the same way, the Szechuan cuisine has become synonym of extreme spiciness.
China offers eight major cooking styles, with the Szechuan cuisine being one of them. Commonly known in China as ‘Chuan Cai’ this cooking style has often been in the spotlight for its proverbial pungency. Yet, this feature is just a piece of the puzzle. The complexity of the Szechuan cuisine goes beyond that mere spiciness that surely we love, but still fails to give a comprehensive idea of this layered micro-cosmos of flavors. With this article we’d like to introduce you to this world made of colors and aromas, which has more than the mare spiciness to offer.
This cooking style dates back to more than 2000 years ago, at the times of the first Chinese dynasty, the Qin dynasty. First evidence of a mature cooking style started appearing already 800 years ago, when, in the city of Lin’an (now the beautiful Hangzhou) the first Szechuan-style restaurants started appearing. Finally, in the late Qing Dynasty (around the 19th century) this cooking style reached the Olympus of the most recognizable Chinese cuisines.
To be fair, flavors and tastes are not the only elements which made of the Szechuan cuisine one of the eight great Chinese cuisines. The culture and the storytelling built on these are equally important!
Long story short, the cuisine of this Province is incredibly ‘layered’, invoking foreign cultural influences, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Starting from the latter, the fertile region where this province is located – known for this reason ‘heavenly country’ – guarantees an incredibly variety of ingredients which deliver 7 signature flavors: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty. Frequently, all these flavors are combined in one dish, and probably you’ve already seen on the market Chinese seasoning bags which boast from 5 to 13 different spices. The result is a cuisine with an incredible depth and complexity of flavors, hitting all the senses in your mouth and nose, an incredible symphony of tastes!
Without doubts, this cuisine is not for everyone. Have you ever tried to mix some spices by yourself? It requires more skills than expected, and an extra pinch of one spice might irremediably affect the overall harmony of the ingredients and flavors. Even today, there’s not a real consensus on quantities and ingredients, and every chef would keep his/her secret recipe away from prying eyes. That’s why our work is important: even our chefs have their secrets, but they put them at our disposal for us to bring a taste of authentic Szechuan cuisine directly to your homes, without having to buy dozens of spices!
But now… it’s time to address the elephant in the room (and give the coup de grace to your beliefs!).
Where’s the proverbial spiciness in all this? Well, let me tell you that over millenniums of culinary tradition the hot chillies – now a signature element of this cooking style – found its place in Szechuanese pantries only ‘recently’. To be more precise, only since the end of 15th or early 16th century, when hot pepper was introduced into China from Mexico (another place where people like challenges).
Originally, in fact, the Szechuan cuisine was not spicy at all, being more oriented toward sharp and pungent tastes derived from ginger, mustard, chives and onions. These ingredients are not exactly ‘spicy’, but are undoubtedly able to give an extra kick to soups and warm dishes, that represented a standard in the Szechuan province, characterized by high humidity and heavy showers (that often occur even in the summer). And why not? Probably next time we’ll talk about how that same humid and dank weather caused the birth of the most iconic dish in Chongqing (spoiler alert: hotpot!). But that’s another story…
To return to today’s subject, it must be said that hot chillies from Mexico easily found a way to Szechuan people’s heart, because the spiciness of this ingredient is an even more efficient remedy against internal dampness. Not to mention that chillies are highly addictive, literally! It has been found that capsaicin present in chillies induce a sort of ‘false alarm’ in our bodies’ pain sensors. Basically, our brain is tricked into believing that the tongue truly is on fire, and releases adrenaline and endorphins, two classes of hormones that reduce pain and induce a sense of happiness that experts call ‘pepper high’.
Yet, calling Szechuan food simply ‘spicy’ would be reductive! There’s a reason, in fact, if the Szechuan flavors are known under a very specific label, that differs from the common Chinese name for ‘spicy’ (辣 pronounced là). The Szechuanese concept of spiciness has something more…in more ways! It is called 麻辣 (málà), and it is not a case, because the usual fiery sensation which burns our lips (the là) comes together with the 麻 (má). This is a particular numbing feeling on your tongue, often compared to a 9W shock that will make your taste buds tremble and lose their sensitivity for less than a second! Bzzz! Like a short circuit before the real explosion (caused by the effective spiciness of the chillies of course!). Such effect is the result of a wise work of flavor-creation which sees the mixture of spicy Chilli Peppers with the local treasure, the Szechuan Peppercorns. The seconds are the key behind this flavor as, differently from what their name might suggest, they are not true peppercorns! This spice is related to citrus fruits, from which inherited the pungency and freshness of its taste. But when it comes to the numbing effects, the secret lays behind the presence of a small molecule, the hydroxy-alpha sanshool which definitely made the fortune of the Szechuan Peppercorn.
Beyond the complexity of chemical interactions and strange formulas, what we’d like you to remember is the different sensations and reactions that take place in your mouth when you eat Szechuanese food. Too often, in fact, we’re too focused on the challenge, to truly appreciate – or even notice – the quick and sharp notes of the Szechuan Pepper.
It is maybe true that “food in Sichuan is not just chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns and maybe whole dried pepper for color”, as Andrew Coe, a famous American food writer, once said. And we agree with him!