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Sichuan: Once Spelled Szechuan

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Winter Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(4) pages: 7-9, to 35


Before pinyin was the appropriate and current transliteration, this province was known as Szechuan or spelled some other way. It has a long history dating back to before the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BCE), and is a province with many natural resources. Some say it is the capital of China's gastronomy because of its extensive food culture. The business center of this Southwestern part of China is Chengdu, the provincial capital.

Hot and humid, many say it has the spiciest foods in all of China. However, not all foods here are piquant even if they are made with lots of chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns are not related to black pepper nor to the chili pepper. They are one of two hundred fifty or so species in the Zanthoxylum, rue, or the the Rutaceae family. Most are Zanthoxylum stimulans or Z. piperitum. Once known as the Fagara family and they still are in many countries, these peppers are also known were also known as prickly ash. Their exteriors or shells provide woodsy, pungent, citrus-like flavors that numb the mouth and lips, the chili peppers provide a burning sensation and they are newer addition to the foods of this region. Many dishes include rock sugar or a related substitute. One author says their foods were first prepared for Ding Baozhen, a Qing Dynasty official, but not everyone agrees, and we do not!

Often served in a clay pot or a divided metal container when soupy, as can be seen here, one side is piquant, the other is not. Some Sichuan dishes are served in medicinal clay pots, bulbous in their bottom half; and they can have up to one hundred different herbs and spices in them.

The diet of Sichuan locals, piquant or not, often includes fermented pickles. They can be found on their tables, most preserved in long-fermented sauces, and they go well with almost all their dishes. Spicy foods have not always been part of their main meals; though some are now served with every meal.

People from this province like their noodles thick and round and made with sweet potato flour. They are often accompanied by cooked pig’s intestines. We have seen some made spaetzle-like as noodles pushed through the holes of a strainer directly into boiling water. Many local folk like theirs mixed with scallions and slivered garlic, also Chinese celery, vinegar, chili oil, with or without oyster sauce, and with dark soy sauce and dark vinegar. Some add bean sprouts, many like them swimming in superior broth.

Chen Zemin from this province, tells us he likes his with dumplings. He is the world’s first billionaire frozen dumpling maker who began his career as a medical doctor, was Vice-President of the Second People’s Hospital in Zengzhou, a city near Chengdu. He quit that at age fifty bored with medicine, and he wanting to go back to his earlier love, cooking.

Chen started the San Quan Company and now has many factories in China all making dumplings. We read that the largest among them has more than five thousand employees and produces more than four hundred tons of dumplings every day. His dumplings are made in machines lined up like soldiers in a huge refrigerated facility, its walls are covered with white tiles.

Frozen foods made in this quantity are something new for China. Not so for the United States or other western countries. His factories make and quick- freeze dumplings and sell them to large marketers all over China where they can then be steamed in bamboo baskets.

Clarence Birdseye in the US invented a fast-freezing machine in 1924, but that was not the first of its type. One was invented in Boston in 1888. In the 1930s, Frederick McKinley Jones designed a portable cooling unit for trucks. These now take frozen foods all over the world; the technology is now used in China. Chen delivers frozen foods all over China thanks to his refrigerated warehouse and these types of trucks. His warehouse came on line in 1955 and that is a good thing because less than one-quarter of all meat sold in China was or is under refrigeration, and less than five percent of their fruits and vegetables are, either.

Not commonly known, but Chinese newspapers do report one or two digestive upsets to their readers every week claiming almost half the foods in the retail market are to blame. We wonder if the Chinese have enough energy to supply all the refrigeration they need now. Maybe they will need to return to older preservation techniques to significantly reduce these stomach complaints.

In most Chinese markets, jars and cans of bold pungent flavors line many shelves. Those form the Sichuan province are adored, and many home cooks stock five or more different piquant sauces made with chilies or Sichuan peppercorns such as xiao mi la, hong mei ren, chao tian jiao, or jing tiao, ye shan jiao, and dour ban jian to use in their foods to combat illnesses. They use them every week, some every day. Quite a few have chili in them, some are sweet, some with broad beans, salted black beans, ya cai, wheat flour and/or spices. Many add black vinegar, ginger, garlic, and scallions, and people adore them. Tht, or they purchase their spices in the marketplace looking like the oneshown at the beginning of this article. Older Sichuan pastes and sauces did not have chili peppers because they came into the Chinese cuisine in the late 19th century, three hundred or so years after they entered the New World. Purchased or made at home, chile bean pastes are produced not only in the Sichuan Province, but all over China. Many tell us the best are from Pixian County outside of Chengdu.

If you go to Chengdu, visit the PIXIAN COUNTY SICHUAN MUSEUM; 8 RONGHUA NORTH ALLEY; GUCHENG VILLAGE. It is a short drive from downtown Chengdu. Get directions calling them at 86-28-8791-8008 or e-mail them at: www.cdccbwg.com
Ask if their restaurant is open the day and time you plan to be there. It is a great place to learn and taste the foods of this cuisine. When there, take a good look at the clay pots outside the entrance as they are fermenting some of their sauces.
If time allows, go to the WUHOU SHRINE; 231 WUHOU and JINLI STREETS were there are many food vendors selling Chengdu snacks such as dou ha.
And do check out CHUNYANQUAN; 6 JIXIANG STREET; QINGYANG DISTRICT and others nearby. Many are inexpensive and serve yu xiang pai gu mian and spare rib noodles.
Visit MING TING; 30 YIJIEFAN; WAICAOJIA ALLEY; their phone: 86-28-8331-5978. They are for the adventurous as they serve pig brains, mapo doufu, other offal dishes, and bacon steamed in lotus leaves. These places have true tastes that locals adore.
Until then, make any or all of the recipes that follow.
Sichuan Pickles
Ingredients:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup coarse salt
1 cup Chinese rice vinegar
3 seedless thin cucumbers, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and slightly crushed
Preparation:
1. In a wok or small pot, dissolve the sugar and salt in the vinegar, then add the chilies and the peppercorns and bring to the boil.
2. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then add the cucumbers and seal the jars. Let them sit on the counter over night or for one or two days, then serve.
Sichuan Chili Oil
Ingredients:
2 cups vegetable oil
4 star anise
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 cao guo which are black cardamon pods
4 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon, broken into four pieces
1 three-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
˝ cup chili peppers, seeds discarded, and chopped
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Preparation:
1. Heat the oil in a wok or pot, then add all the other ingredients. Next transfer the ingredients to glass jars, and cover and let rest for two days.
2. Next strain the oil and store it in the refrigerator. This oil can stay for three months, but do discard it when cloudy.
Sichuan-style Pork Belly with Chinese Chives
2 pounds pork belly, the skin left on
3 cups vegetable oil
1/4 cup piquant red chili oil
2 Tablespoons Sichuan chili paste
2 Tablespoons Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed and then mashed
4 teaspoons Chinese sweet bean paste
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
10 Chinese chives, blossom ends removed and discarded, then cut into one-half inch pieces
4 cups steamed white rice
Preparation:
1. Put pork belly in large pot or wok covered with water and bring it to the boil, then reduce its heat and simmer for two hours or until tender. Then drain and dry the meat with paper towels, and slice it thinly across the belly, and set it aside to cool.
2. Heat oil in a wok of pot, add half the slices and fry them until crisp, then remove them to a platter and fry the other half.
3. Discard that oil and put the chili oil in the same pot, add the chili paste and the mashed black beans and stir well before adding the sweet bean paste and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved.
4. Next add the chive pieces and stir, and return the pork slices and stir-fry for two minutes. Put them on a pre-heated platter over the cooked rice, and serve.
Spare Ribs, Sichuan Style
Ingredients:
2 pounds pork ribs sawed into three-inch pieces, then cut into individual ribs
2 cups Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 cups vegetable oil
4 Tablespoons fennel seeds
10 whole star anise
3 sticks cinnamon, each one broken in half
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 whole fresh garlic clove, peeled and smashed
5 dried red chili peppers, seeded and slivered
1/4 cup chili oil
Preparation:
1. Toss spare ribs, wine, and five-spice powder, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
2. Drain the ribs the next day, and put them in a wok or sauce pan with three of cups cold water. Bring them to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for five minutes, then drain and set them aside.
3. Add one quarter of the oil, garlic, fresh ginger, chili pepper pieces, and the fennel seeds and stir-fry for one minute, then add star anise and the cinnamon pieces and stir-fry for two more minutes. Now wrap the spices in a triple layer of cheesecloth and tie them tightly.
4. Add the ribs, sugar, salt, spices in cheesecloth, and three cups of cold water. Simmer for thirty minutes, then discard the cheesecloth and its spices and the liquid. Remove the spare ribs and dry the wok or pan before returning one-quarter of a cup of oil and fry the spare ribs for five minutes or until they are crisp. Next, add the garlic and the chili peppers and stir-fry for one more minute before putting them all in a pre-heated bowl. Serve.
Dan Dan Noodles Sichuan Style
Ingredients:
˝ pound uncooked sweet potato noodles, cooked until soft, then drained and mixed with two tablespoons of sesame oil, then set aside
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
˝ pond ground pork
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
5 baby bok cai, boiled for one minute, drained, then cut in half the long way
1 Tablespoon sesame paste mixed with an equal amount of cold tea
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
Preparation:
1. Stir hot noodles and sesame oil and put them in a pre-heated hot wok or a fry pan. Add the vegetable oil and the garlic and stir-fry for one minute before adding the pork, and now stir-frying this another minute or until the pork is no longer pink.
2. Put the bok cai in boiling water and blanch for one minute, Drain and put them around a platter.
3. In a small pot, put the sesame paste, tea, peppercorns, rice wine, rice vinegar, and soy sauce and bring to the boil. Add the pork mixture and put this in the center of a serving platter and pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Then serve.
Mapo Doufu
Ingredients:
4 one-pound squares of Doufu, half firm and half soft
1 pound ground pork
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 thick zha cai, chopped coarsely
1 Tablespoon piquant bean paste
1 Tablespoon potato starch
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese sugar crushed
1 teaspoon Sichuan chili oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Preparation:
1. Cut doufu into one-inch squares and blanch them in boiling water for one minute.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the vegetable oil, then the pork, and stir-fry for one minute before adding the zha cai, the hot bean paste, potato starch, and the soy sauce, and stir this well.
3. Next, add the sugar, chili oil, and the sesame oil and stir-fry another minute before adding the doufu. Stir-fry all mixing them gently for one minute, then mix once more and serve in a pre-heated bowl or deep platter.
Chicken Sichuan Style
Ingredients:
2 pounds boneless chicken thighs cut int two-inch pieces
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
5 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into one-inch cubes
1 carrot, peeled and cut on an angle into one-inch cubes
1 onion, peeled and cut into one-inch cubes
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 cup fermented rice
1/2 cup Shao Xing rice wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons Sichuan hot pepper sauce
1 Tablespoon Sichuan hot chili oil
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
4 scallions, cut on an angle into one-inch pieces
1/2 pound sweet potato noodles, cooked and drained
Preparation:
1. Mix chicken pieces with the salt and pepper.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the chicken cubes for three minutes, then remove them and set them aside.
3. Put the potatoes in the wok or pan, and stir-fry until they are almost soft, then add the carrots, onions, garlic, and the fermented rice. Stir-fry for two minutes, then add the chicken stock and the hot pepper paste, and stir well for two minutes before returning the chicken to the pan with the vegetables.
4. Add the chili oil soy sauce, sugar, and the scallions and simmer for two minutes until almost all liquid has evaporated. Then toss with the noodles and put all into a pre-heated bowl or deep platter, put the chicken on top, and serve.

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