Like Fujian food, which I discussed earlier this month, Sichuan food is one of the Eight Great Schools of Chinese food. Aside from Cantonese cuisine, it's probably the most commonly-available regional Chinese cuisine here in London, possibly even in the entire UK. You may also see it referred to as "Szechuan" or "Szechwan" food — these are older transliterations of its Chinese name, 四川 (Sìchuān in pinyin).
I've already posted about several Sichuan dishes individually (see the end of this post for a list), but haven't yet given an overview of the province and its cuisine, so today I hope to remedy that lack.
The province of Sichuan is a landlocked one, and so seafood is less commonly used than in the provinces along the coast. However, its warm climate and abundant supply of river (and rain) water provide ideal conditions for agriculture. Indeed, the name 四川 literally means "four rivers"[see footnote].
Note also that as I mentioned in last Friday's post on 辣子雞/là zi jī/chicken with chillies, the direct-controlled municipality of Chóngqìng (重慶) is adjacent to Sichuan province, and used to be part of it until fairly recently (1997), and so there are multiple similarities between the cuisines of the two areas. See Fuchsia Dunlop on Time Out Beijing for more on this.
The most famous ingredients of Sichuan cuisine are probably chillies (辣椒/là jiāo or 辣子/là zi) and Sichuan pepper (花椒/huā jiāo), which together create the characteristic 麻辣 (má là/"numbing-spicy") flavour. Chilli is used in multiple forms — fresh, dried, pickled, as chilli oil (紅油/hóng yóu/"red oil"), and as chilli bean paste (豆瓣醬/dòu bàn jiàng).
Sichuan peppercorns are the "numbing" (麻/má) component of Sichuan's numbing-spicy ma-la flavour. They can be used whole or ground, and they're also usually included when making chilli oil. Sichuan pepper can be quite astonishing to people who've never tried it before — it really does make your mouth and lips tingle in a numbing, almost pins-and-needles kind of way. This isn't by any means an unpleasant sensation, though, and the flavour is also good; woodsy and citrussy and complex.
However, as Fuchsia Dunlop explains in her excellent book Sichuan Cookery, "the most salient characteristic of Sichuan cuisine is its audacious combinations of several different flavours in a single dish". One such combination of flavours is 怪味 (guài wèi), translated literally into English as "strange-flavour"; this type of flavouring is commonly used to dress a cold dish of chicken or rabbit. A similar flavour combination is exemplified by 口水雞 (kǒu shuǐ jī), or "mouthwatering chicken", the main difference between the two being that 怪味雞 includes Chinese sesame paste while 口水雞 doesn't.
Another characteristic Sichuan flavour combination is 魚香 (yú xiāng), literally "fish-fragrance", named due to its basis in the seasonings traditionally used in fish cookery. Many different base ingredients can be "fish-fragranced", though the ones I've seen most often are aubergine/eggplant (魚香茄子/yú xiāng qié zi) and pork (魚香肉絲/yú xiāng ròu sī).
For much more information on Sichuan province and its cuisine, see the Fuchsia Dunlop book mentioned above. I recommend it very highly.
One thing to note is that true Sichuan food bears little resemblance to the "Szechuan style sauce" that you might see in the "X in Y sauce" section on a standard Anglicised "Chinese" menu. Similarly, there are a few Sichuan dishes, most notably fish-fragrant aubergine and mapo tofu, that tend to show up on these Westernised menus in versions that are almost unrecognisable in comparison to the way they should be. If you've only ever had "Sichuan" food from the type of restaurant that specialises in sweet and sour pork balls and advertises itself as serving "Cantonese, Peking, Szechwan cuisine", then I do urge you to try the real thing.
Speaking of which, something I've noticed recently in London is a tendency for restaurants to use "Sichuan food" as a shorthand for "regional Chinese food"; for example, a menu that looked much more Hunan to me was described as "our Sichuan menu" (as opposed to "our Cantonese menu", which contained not Cantonese food but Westernised Chinese food). I suspect this is because the idea of Sichuan food has now entered the mainstream among London's dining public, whereas Hunan food is still seen as somewhat more obscure. It's worth keeping an eye out for this sort of thing, if you're interested in the distinctions between different Chinese cuisines, though if you're only interested in obtaining some kind of regional food, it probably doesn't matter!
One way to identify a true Sichuan restaurant is to look for the word 川菜 (Chuān cài) somewhere on the frontage. Another clue might be the use of "Shu" and/or "Ba" in the name (example), since Sichuan province lies in the area of China previously occupied by the ancient kingdoms of 蜀 (Shǔ) and 巴 (Bā).
Incidentally, ewan asked me when we met for tea the other day whether I'll be posting about each of the Eight Schools (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang). I would like to! Though I'm going to have to do a bit of digging around to find restaurants within reach of London that will serve me Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, or Zhejiang food. If you know of any, please let me know! I don't currently have a passport (I need to sort out various paperwork and such before I can get another one) but will happily travel anywhere within the UK.
Here are the Sichuan dishes I've posted about:
- 擔擔麵/dān dān miàn (dan dan noodles)
- 夫妻肺片/fū qī fèi piàn (married couple's lung slices)
- 乾煸四季豆/gān biān sì jī dòu (dry-fried green beans)
- 火爆腰花/huǒ bào yāo huā (fire-exploded kidney flowers)
- 口水雞/kǒu shuǐ jī (mouthwatering chicken)
- 麻婆豆腐/má pó dòu fu (mapo tofu)
- 螞蟻上樹/mǎ yǐ shàng shù (ants climbing a tree)
- 飄香辣子雞/piāo xiāng là zi jī (drifting-fragrance chicken with chillies)
- 水煮牛肉/shuǐ zhǔ niú ròu (water-cooked beef)
- 酸辣豆花/suān là dòu huā (hot-and-sour "flower" beancurd)
- 蒜泥白肉/suàn ní bái ròu (pork with mashed garlic)
- 魚香茄子/yú xiāng qié zi (fish-fragrant aubergine)