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If you’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant, chances are you’ve seen something labeled as “Szechuan” before. This is the outdated spelling (similar to Peking for Beijing) of Sichuan (四川 – sì chuān), which is a province in southwest China. However you spell it, this corner of China is responsible for some of the country’s most delicious food. Let’s dig in and check it out in an intro to Sichuan cuisine (四川菜 – sì chuān cài).
Sichuan cuisine is one of the most famous and popular in all of China, and it’s one variety of Chinese food that can be found all over the world. In fact, Sichuan cuisine may be second only to Cantonese in terms of worldwide popularity. One of the most unique aspects of Sichuan cuisine is the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 – huā jiāo – lit. “flower pepper”) – an unassuming little pepper that leaves your mouth feeling incredibly numb. Sichuan cuisine is also famous for a few particular flavors: numb and spicy (麻辣 – má là), fish fragrance (鱼香 – yú xiāng), and the strange/exotic taste (怪味 – guài wèi). Both ma la and yu xiang can be found all over China, but the guai wei is mostly only popular in Sichuan province. Although Sichuan cuisine is mostly known for its spicy dishes, not every dish from this region will leave you sweating and red in the face.
Learn about Sichuan cuisine in this short video.
So… what’s on the menu in a real Sichuan joint? Here are some common Sichuan dishes, including some with very interesting names:
I’m sure you recognize kung pao chicken, but you’re probably wondering about a few of those. Here’s a description for some of the more famous Sichuan dishes on the list, as well as some of those with a strange name:
This famous dish – which literally means “pockmarked grandmother tofu” – has a famous tale that accompanies it about the woman who created it. Although there are different varieties of this dish, the basic recipe calls for tofu, chili/bean based sauce, fermented black beans, and diced meat. If you’re a vegetarian, just tell your waiter, “I don’t eat meat” (我不吃肉 – wǒ bù chī ròu) and they’ll whip it up for you minus the pork/beef.
We can’t talk about Sichuan food without mentioning its legendary hot pot. In what is without a doubt one of the most fun ways to eat on Earth, a pot of spicy chili oil is boiled right at your table, where you’re free to order up your favorite meats, seafood, and vegetables and toss them in to the boiling, spicy goodness. I usually go for the half and half, with one side incredibly spicy and the other being a mixture of chicken broth and mushrooms.
The ChengDudez learn how to make hot pot.
For this fantastic Sichuan dish, pork is first boiled, then returned to the pot to be stir-fried with peppers, chili, and soy. Thus the Chinese name, which literally means “returned to the pot meat.” Some Muslim restaurants make this dish with beef, which I personally prefer to the fatty pork used in most other places, but they’re both delicious.
A big bowl of noodles served in a spicy chili-sauce with preserved vegetables, minced pork, and scallions, this dish gets its name from a type of carrying pole that was used by vendors who carried and sold this dish on the street. As such, it can also be called “Peddler’s Noodles” in English.
While you may not want to dig into a plate of “Husband and Wife Lung Slices,” it’s actually pretty good. It’s usually thinly sliced beef – served cold or at room temperature – seasoned with chili oil. It often includes other parts of the cow – tongue, stomach, heart and yes, sometimes lung. The name comes from a famous couple who apparently made the best version on the streets of Chengdu back in the 1930s.
The Food Ranger digs into this local specialty in Chengdu.
Don’t worry – there aren’t really any ants in this dish. It’s just ground meat cooked in sauce and poured over some noodles. The name comes from the fact that the meat sticking to the noodles resembles ants clinging to a twig. If you do actually want to eat bugs, that can certainly be arranged in China as well.
Now that you’ve learned a lot about Sichuan cuisine, try answering these questions in Chinese: