Lovers of hot and spicy cuisine, look no further. If the sight and smell of red hot chilli peppers from a few metres away already sends your taste buds into a salivating hypnosis, the Sichuan kitchen is where you belong. Some of these scrumptious, fiery dishes can leave your lips tingling and your tongue numb.
The Sichuan kitchen is perhaps the most interesting out of all the different Chinese cuisines. It is said that the root of Sichuan cuisine goes by the formula: 3, 3, 3, 7, 8, 9. The bases consist of 3 aromatics (onions, ginger and garlic), 3 peppers (red chilli peppers, black peppercorns and hua jian or Sichuan peppers), and 3 seasonings (vinegar, spicy fermented bean paste and brown sugar). The 7 tastes refer to salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, tingling, and piquant. From here, chefs are able to create 8 flavours that are represented in the signature dishes of the Sichuan kitchen: yu xiang (fish-flavoured), suan la (sour and hot), jiao ma (pepper-tingling), guai wei (odd flavour), ma la (spicy hot with a tingling-numbing sensation), hong you (red spicy oily), la zi (spicy chilli hot) and gan shao (smoked). These 8 flavours are showcased using 9 common cooking techniques which are wok-fry, deep-fry, braise, stew, steam, poach, smoke, roast and pickling.
Since today was the last day of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, a few spice-loving friends and I visited a Sichuan restaurant that recently opened up in the neighbourhood. We decided to test four signature Sichuan fare: ma po tofu, yu xiang qie zi (fish-flavoured aubergines), Sichuan liang mian (Sichuan-style cold noodles with shredded chicken) and fuqi feipian (spicy beef broth).
The verdict? Our dishes lived up to their spicy reputation and left a pleasant tingly, numbing (ma la) aftertaste sensation in our mouths. We are keen to return for other signature dishes on the menu, including gong bao ji ding (Kung Pao Chicken), dan dan mian (dan dan noodles) and of course Sichuan huoguo (hotpot).
While the 3,3,3,7,8,9 formula of the Sichuan kitchen is somewhat intimidating, there are several dishes that can be easily recreated at home. One of my favourites is the Sichuan-style cold noodles, my submission to The Cookbook Challenge noodles theme. It takes less than 10 minutes to prepare and makes both a delicious entrée or main dish.
sichuan cold noodles
serves 2, as an entrée (double the quantity of ingredients in this recipe for a main or to feed more people)
preparation time: 10 minutes
- 150g medium or thin dried egg noodles (or 300g fresh noodles)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped spring onions/ scallions
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorn oil (available at Asian grocers)
- 1 cup of finely shredded cooked chicken (as a vegetarian option, use fried bean curd)
- 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
In a medium pot, add the noodles into boiling water and stir immediately to separate the strands. Cook the noodles until they are a bit softer than al dente. Rinse the cooked noodles under cold water and drain well.
In a small bowl, mix together the sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and chilli oil.
Mound the noodles in the small bowl with the sauce. Add the shredded chicken, scallions and sesame seeds on top. Toss the noodles, chicken and scallions with the sauce at the bottom of the bowl, coating evenly, and serve.
If you prefer the dish to be cold, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
For more recipes and an excellent introductory guide into Sichuan cuisine, I highly recommend Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Sichuan Cookery (released in the US as Land of Plenty).