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Chuan Cai Says 'Sichuan Cuisine'

by Adeline Shun P. Koepnick

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Winter Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(4) page(s): 10 and 12

Sichuan cuisine is famous for its many flavors. Almost every dish has its own unique taste. Known as chuan cai in Chinese, it enjoys an international reputation for being spicy and flavorful. However, this highly distinctive pungency is not the only characteristic of this cuisine. In fact, it boasts a variety of flavors and many different methods of cooking. What is featured and best known is the taste of hot along with a little bit of sweet and sour; also that it is salty and tongue-numbing.

Many flavorings and seasonings are produced in the Sichuan Province. They all make their way into its cuisine. Included are a soy sauce from Zhongba, cooking vinegar from Baoning, another special vinegar from Sanhui, fermented soy beans from Tongchuan, hot pickled mustard tubers from Fuling, chili sauce from Chongqing, a thick broad bean sauce from Pixian, and a special salt from the salt wells in Zigong.

The province of Sichuan has high humidity and many rainy or overcast days. The Chinese believe that the hot peppers used help reduce internal dampness. Therefore, they are used frequently in dishes. Hot dishes became and still are the norm in this cuisine. The region's warm, humid climate does necessitate sophisticated food-preservation techniques including picking, salting, drying and smoking.

Most people are not aware, but statistics do show that the number of dishes in this cuisine is said to surpass five thousand. Typical are Twice Cooked Pork, Spicy Diced Chicken with Peanuts, Dry-fried Shark's Fin, and Fish-flavored Pork Shreds. One well-known and popular dish is Pockmarked Woman's Bean Curd, commonly known by its Chinese name of Mapo Doufu. This famous dish was invented by a Chengdu chef's pockmarked wife decades ago, during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). In it, cubed bean curd is cooked over a low flame and in a sauce containing ground beef, chili, and Sichuan pepper. When served, the bean curd is tender, spicy, and appetizing.

Although many Sichuan dishes live up to their spicy reputation, often ignored are the large percentage of recipes that use little or no spice at all, including recipes such as Tea Smoked Duck. I think two things make Sichuan cuisine very special and very different from the other Chinese cuisines, even those with lots of hot seasoning such as the foods in the Hunan province. One is the Sichuan pepper, known in Chinese as hua jiao. This literally translates to 'flower pepper.' Another difference is the province's thick paste made of broad beans.

Sichuan pepper is the outer pod of the tiny fruits of a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylum. They are widely grown and consumed throughout Asia. They are used as a spice and widely used in this provincial cuisine. For those who want to know more about this spice, check Flavor and Fortune's Volume 10(4) on pages 7, 8, 9, and 19. Also check Wikipedia and other web sources, and take a look at the many books that discuss this seasoning which also goes by the name of 'fagara.' This peppery spice has a unique aroma and special flavor. It is not hot nor pungent like black or white pepper, nor is it piquant as are chili peppers. Rather, it has slight lemony overtones, and in the mouth it creates a kind of tingly numbness caused by three percent of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. This chemical sets the stage for its hotness.

Recipes often suggest lightly toasting then crushing the tiny Sichuan pepper seeds before adding them to foods. The best quality of this spice only uses the husks. The seeds are discarded or ignored. Sichuan peppercorns, as they are also known, are generally added at the last moment. Folks know they go well with dishes featuring fish, duck, and chicken. They also know that these fruit seeds have a numbing effect on the lips when eaten in large doses. Sichuan foods served ma la, which literally means 'numb and hot' is very common in Sichuan cooking. It is actually a combination of Sichuan peppers and chili peppers.

As to the Sichuan penchant for eating broad beans, these legumes are preferred young and tender. Harvesting usually begins as early as the middle of Spring for plants started under glass or over-wintered in a protected location. The main crop sown in early spring, from mid to late summer, is usually harvested in late autumn.

These beans can be fried, causing their skins to split open. They are then salted to produce a crunchy snack. Popular throughout China, their name means 'open-mouth nut.' When broad beans are combined with soybeans and chili peppers and then aged, they produce a spicy fermented bean paste called doubanjiang. Like Sichuan peppercorns, this bean paste is widely used in the foods of this province.

My favourite dish in the chuan cai cuisine is Spicy Water-boiled Fish. Somewhat like a soup, it is made with fish pieces in lots of liquid, broad beans, Sichuan peppercorns and other spices. I took the picture of it on this page. This spicy water-boiled technique is a popular modern cooking method. Its definition in culinary texts is "fresh, numbness, hot, and spicy." Traditionally, most Sichuan chefs like to use red pepper oil to cover all their spicy dishes. However, I like to put the vegetables on the top of mine. When properly made, the flavor of the white meaty fish holds its own against the chilies and other strong flavors. It meets all the requirements of good Chinese food because it emphasizes good color, lovely aroma, and fine taste; and it is delicious and healthy.

My favorite Mapo Dofu recipe follows:
Mapo Doufu
2 one-pound boxes of firm tofu
2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil, separated into a tablespoon each
1/2 pound ground pork (vegetarians use pickled Sichuan cabbage)
2 Tablespoons garlic sauce with chili
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon arrowroot flour or cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon of cold water
1 or 2 scallions, sliced, for garnish
1. Cut the tofu into cubes or slice them as you wish. Soak in hot, lightly salted water for about ten minutes, then pat dry with paper towels.
2. Heat a wok and add one tablespoon of oil, then the ground meat mixed with the arrowroot flour. Next, add the three sauces and stir-fry just until the meat loses its pink color; then drain and set aside.
3. Drain the tofu on paper towels, then add the other teaspoon of the oil and fry the tofu until golden. Then add the set aside meat mixture and stir-fry until heated thoroughly. Add sugar and the arrowroot mixture and simmer until the sauce has thickened. Put into a serving bowl, sprinkle scallions on to, and serve.

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