“We eat anything that has four legs and isn’t a table
and anything that has wings that isn’t a plane”
~ Chinese saying
Sichuan dishes are as hot as their summers. Some say that the heat of the dishes help the body handle the heat in the Chengdu Valley. I’m certainly not an expert at making Sichuan food, but I do know one thing: If you’re not sweating when you’re done eating, it wasn’t made properly.
There are two unique ingredients for this region that you’ll find in almost every dish, including your breakfast noodles. The first is huājiāo 花椒, the tiny, circular mouth-tingling peppers that give Sichuan food its famous numbing flavor. If you notice these little guys in your dish, you might want not want to eat them at first- their numbing quality is still picked up by the oil and other food and you’ll notice your lips stinging after a few bites. The second ingredient is làjiāo 辣椒, fiery red peppers that pack a punch of heat. Làjiāo comes fresh, dried, powered or cooked into oil that serves as a spicy condiment on most restaurant tables. Unlike green chilies which I personally don’t enjoy eating, the red Sichuan peppers have a pleasant, not too sharp flavor that serves as the base flavor of most dishes.
Rice or Noodles?
Sichuan is in a rice region of China, meaning that rice serves as the staple food. In northern parts of China where the climate is cooler and dryer, wheat has typically been the staple crop so people eat noodles and bread as the basis of their diets. If you’re traveling through popular northern cities like Beijing and Xi’An you’ll see people eating noodles at most meals. While noodles are available in Sichuan, families eating at home tend to have dishes (cooked entrees of both meat and vegetables) for lunch and dinner. Dishes are always eaten family style and everyone at the table shares while also eating rice.
Want to order dishes like a pro? Foreigners often don’t know how to order and share dishes. The trick is, count the number of people at the table and add one. So, if there’s a group of 5 people traveling together you need to have 6 dishes. Generally you also add a soup, which you drink at the end of the meal as a beverage. Of the 6 dishes, two or three will have meat and one is always a seasonal green vegetable. If you’re light eaters, order less since the idea of doggie bags isn’t common in China and the food will go to waste. In fact, if you’re eating with Chinese hosts, they probably will order far too many dishes. They’ll lose face if you finish them all, since it means they weren’t hospitable enough. Sadly, this means that a lot of food is wasted every meal in China. Try your best to get them to order lightly and suggest that you can order more mid-meal if you need it.
Food for thought:
Many people in Sichuan told me that Northern Chinese tend to be taller because they eat wheat. Not sure what evidence there is to that, but my students love to tell me that’s why Americans are taller too.
Hot Pot is not just a meal in Sichuan, but an occasion. No matter what time of year you travel through Sichuan you’ll undoubtedly see people sitting on small plastic stools hunched over tables with built in vats filled with steaming oil and broth. The table will be covered with small plates of raw ingredients with everything from pig brain to duck feet to pumpkin slices. Everyone throws in bits of food to cook in the boiling oil and then dips the food into their personal bowl of (even more) spicy oil before eating it. The idea is that the food you’re eating is essentially the scraps of the animal- intestines, stomach, brain- so you need to have intensely flavored oil to cover up the flavor and texture of the meat.
Trust me, as a vegetarian, this is a hard to handle at first. If you want to have this truly authentic Sichuan meal, but don’t love the idea of eating vegetables cooked with animal parts, I suggest finding a “small hot pot” restaurant. These tend to be a bit more upscale but everyone gets their own personal pot and a convection burner at their seat. You pick the broth (most have either a mushroom or tomato base) and control what goes in. After I found one of these restaurants in my town I started to truly love eating hot pot.
Cooling the Fire
What do you wash all this spicy food down with? Nothing really. It’s uncommon for most Chinese to drink much with a meal and certainly don’t expect to have a cold beverage. Most people believe that it’s bad for digestion to drink while eating and it’s even worse if it’s cold. If you’re having dishes, a weak tea (buckwheat is common) is generally free, whereas it’s often not provided with noodles. In that case you can either drink the noodle broth or buy water. Usually, it’s absolutely fine to bring in your own bottled water or soda since most restaurants simply don’t have them. Hot pot is the exception- beer is the perfect accompaniment to all the hot oil. Feeling like a local? Drink the beer at room temperature or ask them to heat it up in the winter.