Dominating the southwestern China cooking school, Sichuanese cooking is noted for its heavy use of chilli, which locals explain as a result of climate – according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, chillies dispel “wet” illnesses caused by Sichuan’s seasonally damp or humid weather. But chillies don’t simply blast the tastebuds, they stimulate them as well, and flavours here are far more complex than they might appear at the initial, eye-watering, mouthful.
Sichuan cuisine’s defining taste is described as mala – “numb and hot” – created by the potent mix of chillies and huajiao (Sichuan pepper), with its soapy perfume and mouth-tingling afterbuzz. One classic mala dish is mapo doufu, bean curd and minced pork; others include “strange-flavoured chicken” (dressed with sesame paste, soy sauce, sugar and green onions mixed in with the chillies and huajiao), and the innocently named “boiled beef slices”, which actually packs more chillies per spoonful than almost any other Sichuanese dish.
Other more general dishes include hot and sour soup, flavoured with pepper and vinegar; double-cooked pork, where a piece of fatty meat is boiled, sliced thinly and then stir-fried with green chillies; fish-flavoured pork (whose “seafood” sauce is made from vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and sesame oil); gongbao chicken, the local version of stir-fried chicken and peanuts; and smoked duck, a chilli-free cold dish, aromatic and juicy. There’s also a great number of Sichuanese snacks – xiaochi – which some restaurants specialize in: green beans with ginger, pork with puréed garlic, cucumber with chilli-oil and sesame seeds, dandan mian (“carry-pole” noodles, named for the way in which street vendors used to carry them around), tiger-skin peppers, scorched then fried with salt and dark vinegar, pork steamed in ground rice (served in the bamboo steamer), and a huge variety of sweet and savoury dumplings.
One Chongqing speciality now found all over China is huoguo (hotpot), a social dish eaten everywhere from streetside canteens to specialist restaurants. You get plates or skewers of meat, boiled eggs or vegetables, cooked – by you at the table – in a bubbling pot of stock liberally laced with chillies and cardamom pods. You then season the cooked food in oil spiced with MSG, salt and chilli powder. The effect is powerful, and during a cold winter you may well find that hotpots fast become your favourite food.