A visit to Sichuan will put your mind to rest about the popularity of dim sum. China is a vast area and often the one with the most interesting history. But Sichuan is also the culinary land of kings, and for this reason food of sichuan there are many different styles of cooking there. Here was once a popular local cuisine absent from the Cantonese repertoire of Chinese food readily available in the West: dim sum.
Food History of Sichuan cuisine
The history of Sichuan food is like the history of Chinese food itself. It has its beginnings in the Han Dynasty around 200 BC, when emperors from China’s Northern conquests would travel to the border areas of the Yin and the Yang and offer their services in the form of fresh supplies of agricultural produce. Those who were skilled in the preparation of local dishes were rewarded with elevated status. When the first foreigner soldiers from China arrived in Vietnam, they found that local Vietnamese cuisine had already been influenced by the Han. The name for this new style of Chinese cooking was Khmer, and eventually it became known as Sichuan.
The greatest city in China
The first foreigner to visit was the French traveller, Sir Thomas Cook who described Sichuan as “the greatest city in China, the greatest market in the world and the best watering-place”. It was also said that there were no spices or anything else in Sichuan food that could make a difference to the original French version. By the nineteenth century, there had been small changes made to the traditional Sichuan dishes, such as the use of rice wine instead of ordinary white vinegar, and fish sauce instead of marine-based seasonings. However, by the new century, the only real change had been in the name. In the new edition of the cookbook, created by the American scholar William Wattles, the term for Sichuan food (nowadays the most commonly used term) is “Chinese food”.
Feature of Sichuan cuisine
The most distinctive food of sichuan cuisine is its use of a plethora of spices and chili-based flavourings. These are combined to create an array of tastes and aromas, as well as complex colour combinations. This is in addition to the typical Chinese food of stir-frying, which is using hot oil to stir- fry various ingredients, often vegetables, in a few minutes. However, unlike Chinese food, Sichuan cuisine favours slow-cooked meats and vegetables, especially meats that are prepared by mixing ingredients in their own juices.
Traditional Sichuanese cuisine
Traditional Sichuanese cuisine combines an extensive use of ginger, garlic and starches. The taste can be strong and pungent, but the aroma is pleasant, spicy and deeply-flavored. Some examples of Sichuan recipes include noodles, beef, steamed vegetables, seafood, stir-fried meat and poultry and chicken. While these ingredients are commonly found in Sichuan cooking, they are also found in other Chinese culinary delights, including certain forms of Vietnamese cuisine and in some Middle Eastern dishes.
In 2003 I bought And the Book of China, a fresh Chinese cookbook, after which I travelled around the country, sampling traditional Chinese dishes in every Chinese city I visited. While I was there I also bought two books -recipe books – that had sections on food of sichuan. At the time I didn’t know much about the cuisine, so these books were a big help to me, as I was able to expand my knowledge on the subject, particularly by learning more about the spices and ingredients used in Sichuan cooking. One of the cookbooks I bought was called China: A Food Lover’s Guide to Eating and Drinking in China and was written by Yang Jie. This book covered almost all the food of Sichuan that I had ever been to, and was extremely helpful to me when I returned to make my own recipes.
In 2006 I bought Food of the Gods, another fresh Chinese cookbook which was written by Taylor. This time I decided to purchase a copy of the Sichuan style cookbook, since this style of cooking has moved on a lot over the years. I was very happy that I had made this decision because Food of the Gods provided me with recipes for all the foods I had tried in my travels, along with a detailed description of each of the dishes, with its region of origin, time of preparation and spice list. The descriptions of the foods were sometimes a little vague, but for the most part Food of the Gods was a very accurate guide to the traditional, regional dishes of Sichuan. In addition to the cookbooks, there are also DVDs and websites available from the internet, which provide videos for cooking recipes, along with photographs.
Sichuan pepper recipes
Over the years I have developed my own collection of recipes, some of which have been turned into deli-style chillies, sandwiches and wraps. I now have a whole set of Sichuan pepper recipes, which I keep in a binder at hand. One of the delights of my summer dining routine is cooking Chinese dishes such as chicken rice noodles and stir fries. Although these dishes can be prepared with just about any variety of chilies, including black peppers, most commonly used in Sichuan cuisine, they do better when they are prepared with the hottest peppers, such as the hottest chilies, cayenne and boneless garlic chilies, as well as the ginger, scallions and lemon wedges. I take time to experiment with various combinations to come up with new ideas for preparing these mouthwatering dishes.