Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, that region of China famous for its spicy food. Chillies are a vital ingredient in almost every dish but what’s not well known is that chili peppers originated in South America – not Asia – and have only been part of Sichuan cooking for around 300 years.
There’s another ingredient much less familiar to the western palette, yet fundamental to Sichuan cuisine: Sichuan pepper corns.
If you’re ever enjoying a bowl of spicy noodles (面) and you suddenly say to yourself “something is wrong with my mouth”, it’s the Sichuan pepper. These little devils don’t burn like chillies – they’re not “hot”. Instead, they give your mouth a strong tingling sensation – pins and needles – just like when your foot has fallen asleep and painfully comes back to life. It’s a fascinating and rather disconcerting sensation.
To make things even more interesting, Sichuan pepper isn’t a pepper at all. It’s actually a citrus fruit! The US Department of Agriculture placed a ban on the import of Sichuan pepper due to a concern over bacteria that can attack orange trees and, in response, all Sichuan pepper exported from China is heat treated to 140F. That dramatically changes its character, taking away much of its distinctive flavour. So, stock up on Sichuan please next time you visit Chengdu.
Everyone Loves Noodles
Noodles are exceptionally popular in Chengdu. They are served in soups as well as “dry” (without broth). Along with Sichuan pepper (of course), you’ll often find noodle dishes featuring chili oil, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, garlic, green onions, cilantro, and cabbage leaves. Most restaurants have a tray of these so you can add as much as you like.
Noodles are like a blank canvas in Sichuan cuisine. It’s the sauce that makes them come to life. While full-bodied spicy noodles are the “bread & butter”, you can indulge your sweet tooth with a tasty and refreshing noodle dessert too.
Meat & Bones
Meat can be as simple as minced pork and beef ribs or as challenging as chicken gizzards, rabbit head, or various intestines. Rabbit head might sound strange. Much like bony fish, the work required to eat it isn’t a negative. Rather, that’s the reason it’s so prized. In Chengdu, food isn’t seen just as fuel or even hedonistic pleasure but as an activity to pass the time with friends and family. The longer it takes to eat, the more work, the better (and the longer your mahjong game can go on too).
And Maybe Some Tofu Too
Tofu is also a common ingredient but it’s not seen as a meat replacement. Variety of texture is very important in Chinese cuisine – much more so than most Western countries – and tofu adds greatly to the spectrum of texture in Sichuan dishes.
Noodles are typically the main dish of choice but if you’re still feeling peckish, there’s a huge variety of snacks too.
Guokui (锅盔) is one of the most popular. This simple baked bread pocket filled with sliced beef, julienned veggies and a sauce of chili oil, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and sichuan pepper is fast and delicious.
While noodles are usually made from wheat, rice is also ubiquitous. Glutenous rice is formed into a wide variety of both savoury and sweet dishes.
My favourite snack, though, is the simple sweet potato.
Fast and Fresh
Sichuan food is invariably fresh. It’s cooked fast and served quickly.
Tea is a big part of Chinese culture, especially so in Chengdu. It reminds us to slow down and enjoy life and it brings people together. Kind of like travel 🙂