In Sichuan, spice is life. What comes into your mind when you think of Sichuan food? Málà flavor is the right answer
Chinese food is more than just stir-fry noodles or dumplings. Have you ever heard of dishes like mapo tofu, hotpot, or spicy dandan noodles? All of them come from Sichuan, a region of China well known over the world for its delicacies. If you haven’t already tried the Sichuan food, and we mean real Sichuanese cuisine – not the tragic ‘Szechuan Sauce’ by McDonald’s – this story is a sure-fire way to get you hooked. Today, we are taking you on a journey through Bashu (Sichuan and Chongqing) culinary tradition to try authentic Sichuan food. Are you ready?
Sichuan, the southwest Chinese province also called the “Country of Heaven” (天府之国 – tiānfǔ zhīguó), is the birthplace of one of the Eight Greater Cuisines of China – which are commonly recognized by Chinese chefs to be the best and most sophisticated cuisines in the country. In Sichuan, spice is life. If a Chinese asks you what your favorite Chinese dish is, you’d better answer something Sichuanese! Also known as chuān cài, 川菜, Sichuan food is the coolest, the most fragrant and most amazing thing not only in China but in the globe.
MÁLÀ, THE DEFINING TASTE OF SICHUAN FOOD – In China, people are used to saying that “the Sichuanese do not fear spicy food”. And why would they? Defined by its characteristic numbing spiciness, 麻辣, málà, the food in Sichuan and neighboring city Chongqing – that shares the same food culture – reflects the Sichuanese people’s fiery-tempered and passionate reputation. The soul of Sichuan cuisine is Sichuan peppercorn, 花椒, huājiāo, literally “flower peppercorn”. Despite its name, the tiny-but-mighty Sichuan peppercorns aren’t peppers but husks of dried berries. This Chinese indigenous spice with lemony notes, gives you a numbing sensation, a phenomenon called paresthesia. A tiny bit is enough to make your lip quiver violently, just like having that Pop Rocket candy, in which the lips and tongue feel as though they are vibrating and go vaguely numb. This is what in Sichuan is called má. This flavor, combined with the spice of chilies – known as là – gave birth to one of the most integral and distinctive flavour among the Eight Greater Cuisine of China: the málà flavor.
Fragrant and strong flavors have been the foundations of the region’s cuisine since Sichuan peppercorn came out of the food scene more than two thousand years ago. One of the oldest Chinese gazettes, the Chronicles of Huayang, dated back to the Jin Dynasty, contains this sentence: 蜀人尚滋味,好辛香 (Shǔ rén shàng zīwèi, hǎo xīnxiāng) meaning the “people of Shu loved flavorful dishes filled with spices”. But here spices do not refer to chili at all; in fact, hot spicy peppers were introduced around the 16th century. They refer to strong-tasting condiments like onion, garlic, leek, water pepper, sweet wormwood, mustard, and of course, Sichuan “flower pepper”.
According to the locals, Sichuan peppercorn not only adds fragrance but also helps fight dampness. That’s why the weather is another reason for the popularity of málà flavor. Sichuan and Chongqing are both sitting on a basin and are surrounded by mountains. Thus, this area is notoriously humid. To counteract the year-round humid, soggy weather, the Sichuanese have in the centuries introduced these “warming” spices in the diet. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, highly humid weather creates dampness in the body, which can lead to headaches and bloating. Eating spicy food can mitigate the adverse physiological effects of humidity. Moreover, this málà flavor has cleansing and detoxing effects.
JUST LET YOUR INHIBITIONS GO UP IN FLAMES – The level of fragrance that you get in Sichuan food is unique in the world, that’s why today, the popularity of Sichuan cuisine is spreading rapidly overseas. It is not surprising that in 2010, Chengdu – Sichuan’s capital city – was the first Asian city to be designated a Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy. Even when you will be addicted to Sichuan food – and trust us, you will be – you might want to make your own Sichuan food. But despite its popularity, even today, finding fresh, potent Sichuan peppercorn in Western countries can be challenging. This is why is a priority of ChinEAT to make sure you will get the finest and the best ingredients directly from China, including spices, dry goods, and sauces. Once you’ve got the hang of Sichuan food, it’s time to spread it with your friends and family.
Let’s have a hot pot party! What? Have you ever heard about it? Traditionally, Sichuanese enjoy eating food around a big, yin-yang-shaped hotpot, with plenty of choose-your-own ingredients. The same ingredient can be experienced in different ways. The pot is divided into a white-non spicy broth and spicy red chili broth with his majesty Sichuan peppercorn. Then you choose your raw ingredient before dunking it into your preferred section. Meanwhile, have fun creating your dipping sauce with a range of herbs and condiments. Then dig in! Admittedly, it’s impossible to ignore how messy Sichuan food can be to eat – chili oil splattering everywhere, sauces dripping on the table, moreover, Sichuan cuisine is healthy in a conventional sense. Dishes include vegetables, of course, but they don’t skimp on the chili oil. But that’s the beauty of it. With food like this, who cares? Just let your inhibitions go up in flames and enjoy the journey!