Sichuan (or Szechwan) food comes from Sichuan Province, which is the mountainous region in the center of China. The cuisine is not at all similar to Thai or Indonesian food, but they do have one thing in common: liberal use of red pepper. It’s undoubtedly the spiciest food in the country; people in Sichuan use red pepper and pepper oil in anything and everything that they cook.
My first Sichuan food experience was at Wang Fu Jing market in Beijing. It was a cold winter night – I was freezing, I was hungry, and I couldn’t decide what to eat. The market had all kinds of food: fried noodles, dim sum, kebabs, fried scorpions, grasshoppers. Suddenly, a lady yelled, “DAN DAN MIAN HEN LA! DAN DAN MIAN HEN LA!” She seemed to be offering me some kind of noodles with ground meat in a red broth. It looked very delicious. And very spicy. That was when I tried dan dan noodles for the first time. Since then, I’ve been hooked.
Dan dan noodles is a classic dish of Chinese Sichuan cuisine. It consists of a spicy sauce containing preserved vegetables, chili oil, ground pork, and scallions served over noodles. In the United States, to cater to conservative taste, dan dan noodles are often prepared more sweet than spicy.
I have noticed that most Sichuan restaurants here also shy away from the most famous ingredient in Sichuan cooking, the peppercorn or “hua jiao.” Sichuan peppercorn has a unique aroma and flavor that is neither hot or pungent like black or white peppercorns. Instead, it has slight lemon overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth. It is widely used in Sichuan cuisine, as well as Tibetan, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Japanese, Konkani, and Batak Toba cuisines, my native tribe in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Traditional Sichuan cooking artfully combines the chili pepper with the peppercorn. That marriage creates a numbing and spicy sensation, referred to as “ma la,” on your tongue. However, the “ma la” taste can get quite intense.
What to order when you go to a Sichuan restaurant?
The majority of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have a general menu and a broad menu, highlighting great dishes from all over China. If you’re not familiar with traditional Sichuan food, you may not recognize all but a few of the items on the menu. Standards like Kung Pao Chicken and Ma Po Tofu are instantly recognizable. The rest of the menu is for you to explore.
Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite Sichuan dishes. Feel free to use this as a guide when you decide to order in from a Sichuan restaurant for the first time. And once you’ve found a favorite dish or two, please comment on this blog and share your list.
Shredded Tofu: In general, this dish is not too spicy. It consists of shredded tofu skin in chili oil, and is often served with cilantro and sesame seeds to garnish.
Shredded Potato: Again, this dish is not too spicy. Shredded stir fried potato in chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. Garlicky and crunchy. It’s a tasty treat. Cilantro and thin sliced red/green pepper are served as a garnish.
Cold cucumber salad: My favorite dish. Cooling, crunchy, slightly spicy, highly addictive cucumber salad.
Seaweed salad: Just like Japanese seaweed salad but with red pepper as garnish. Usually garlicky as well.
Dan Dan Noodles: see my introduction above. Definitely spicy.
Twice cooked pork: Pork belly steak chunks boiled in hot water with sliced ginger and saltcut into thin slices, and returned to a wok to be fried in moderately spicy oil.
Shui Zhu pork/beef/fish: a.k.a the hangover cure. Raw meat or fish poached in water that is heated to boiling point for half a minute, just enough to remove rawness while preserving the meat’s tenderness. The meat is then drained and put in the serving dish with vegetables. Dried chili, sichuan pepper, minced garlic, and other seasonings are spread over the meat. Hot vegetable oil is then poured over the prepared meat and vegetables. This dish is usually spicy.
Chong Qing La Zi Chicken: chicken with chilies. Originally a dish from Chongqing, this one is guaranteed to shock first-timers. A small chicken is chopped up into tiny bone-in pieces, marinated and deep-fried. The fried chicken chunks are then stir-fried with a wok full of chilies and Sichuan pepper.
As I mentioned above, I would love to read your list. Go ahead and comment on this post to let us know your favorite Sichuan dishes and where to get them.
Since I am a lazy foodie, I love online delivery. For authentic Sichuan food, my go-to spot is Panda Country Kitchen in Inner Richmond (San Francisco). Their Dan Dan Noodles are to die for. Zai Jian!
Panda Country Kitchen
4737 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA