Sichuan Cuisine, sometimes referred to as Chuan Cuisine, is one of the eight great cuisine "schools" of China. Sichuan Cuisine is often compared to Hunan Cuisine, since the dishes of both of these cuisine schools tend toward the spicy-hot, but where the spicy-hot dishes of Sichuan Cuisine are said to be "dry hot", a term that is not easily grasped by outsiders or by those not keenly familiar with the cuisine traditions of these two provinces. We will attempt an explanation here based on a parallel to red wines…
The spicy-hotness of Hunan Cuisine, it is said, rests chiefly on its generous use of fresh chilies, whereas the spicy-hotness of Sichuan Cuisine stems from its special mix of dry ingredients (crushed peppercorns and finely-ground red, or cayenne, pepper and dried chilies as well as the now homegrown Sichuan pepper, huajiao ("flower pepper" from the prickly ash tree, Zanthoxylum bungeanum) which has an instantaneous numbing effect on the tongue). The latter form of spicy-hotness, or dry hotness, is said to leave a spicy-hot sensation in one's mouth that lingers on and on, whereas dishes that are marked by wet hotness, if one may call it that, tend to be of a flash-in-the-pan character.
This brings to mind the yardstick applied to vapid as opposed to gutsy red wines, where the taste that initially meets the tongue with the former is all that will be delivered ("what you taste is what you get") whereas with the latter, the taste that initially meets the tongue is not only robust, but continues to linger on, i.e., it has an after-taste (granted, connoisseurs of Hunan Cuisine may object to such a parallel). Many, if not most, red table wines served in restaurants the world over fall in what we here term the vapid category, as they, almost by definition, attempt to please palates of all types (not everyone finds the lingering taste of a robust red wine pleasing, and women - god bless them for their other wonderful qualities! - tend to be in this category, as many women will not drink red wine at all while others will only drink it if it is of the vapid kind). In contrast, when it comes to dry hot versus wet hot spiciness, there's no gender distinction, we're sure!
Sichuan Cuisine has an old and proud tradition, though the cuisine that goes by that name today is relatively young, that is, Sichuan Cuisine has undergone a radical change in style over the past 200-300 years - over the past 100 years especially - which reflects the influence of ordinary people ("commoners") on official cuisine (i.e., the food served in restaurants and, today especially, in fast-food eateries), since with the financial empowerment of ordinary people, restaurants and eateries began increasingly to cater to their tastes. This coincides with the introduction of hotter spices, including chilies, into China.
But the Sichuan Cuisine of old was itself an amalgam of the food traditions of the Ba people of the extreme eastern part of present-day Sichuan Province, including present-day Chongqing Municipality - which, until only recently, was a part of Sichuan Province - and of the food traditions of the Shu people of the equally fertile Chengdu plain and Han River Valley of present-day eastern Sichuan Province (both cultural groups occupied the low-lying eastern part of present-day Sichuan Province/ Chongqing Municipality).
Whereas the Ba people never had an independent state, the Shu people belonged to the ancient Shu State of the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty (the Shu State's exact origin is not known but it is mentioned in Zhou Dynasty annals as having participated in the struggle which eventually brought down the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty. The Shu State was conquered in BCE 316 by the Qin (BCE 778-207) State during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, shortly before the Qin State pronounced itself as the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, with the Emperor of Qin as China's first emperor.
Sichuan Cuisine had established its fame by the beginning of the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, when Sichuan style restaurants made their debut in cities as far away as present-day Hangzhou (formerly Lin'an) in present-day Zhejiang Province. However, the typical sweet, sour, salty and spicy-hot flavors that characterize the Sichuan Cuisine of today first appeared in the province about a century ago. Before that, what might be termed Sichuan Cuisine tended to be sweet foods. If a dish of this period was considered "pungent" or "spicy" (having a burning sensation) it was because it contained more ginger and mustard than usual, with perhaps the addition of more onions and chives than was usual. Generally, the Sichuan Cuisine of former times was quite mild.
Present-Day Sichuan Cuisine
In keeping with the pattern of the other cuisine schools of China, the Sichuan Cuisine school is made up of a number of regional styles. These are: Chengdu, Chongqing and Zigong styles, with an added fourth style that reflects a religious-cultural influence that has come to the fore in recent years as the result of the upsurge in vegetarianism: Buddhist-Vegetarian style. Since the ancient Shu people borrowed generously from the traditions of the ancient Ba people (the latter still exist as an ethnic minority in China, while the Shu people without doubt were assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese society), the food traditions that belong to Sichuan Cuisine are perhaps the most homogenous among the eight great cuisine schools of China: the Chengdu, Chongqing and Zigong styles have much more in common than they have as separate cuisine styles.
The Sichuan Buddhist-Vegetarian style distinguishes itself by its lack of meats, which only places more emphasis on the right choice of seasonings in order to offset the lack of robust flavors that are inherent in meat dishes. Sichuan Buddhist-Vegetarian style dishes are so tasty, however, that they can satisfy even the palates - and stomachs - of carnivores.
The General Characteristics That Define Sichuan Cuisine
1 - Sichuan Cuisine is known for its bold, yet distinct flavors. The bold flavors stem not only from a generous use of strong pepper and chilies, but also from the liberal use of bell peppers, fermented soy beans (from Tongchuan), garlic, green beans, hot-pickled cucumbers with mustard (from Fuling), peanuts, scallions, soy sauce (from Zhongba), cooking vinegar (from Baoning), salad vinegar (from Sanhui), broad-bean sauce (from Pixian), chili sauce (from Chongqing), and special salt (from wells in Zigong) and other uniquely Sichuan flavors such as ginger, mustard, etc., which cannot be duplicated elsewhere, even with the same plants, suggesting that there's either something in the water or in the soil (many of these flavors are so unusual that foreigners call them "strange", but meant in a good sense, especially when these flavors are combined with the right amounts of dry hot spices). Only in Sichuan can one find 'one hundred dishes, each with one flavor and one dish containing all one hundred flavors'. The secret to the latter is in cooking and flavoring each ingredient separately, or in small groupings, then combining them, which is roughly the opposite of what is termed "crockpot" cooking in the U.S.
2 - Sichuan Cuisine typically makes use of fewer cooking methods than do the other cuisine schools, but it excels in the cooking methods it embraces, such as quick-frying, stir-frying, dry-braising and dry-stewing, the latter two of which are techniques special to Sichuan Cuisine. In stir-frying, for example, a very hot wok is used and the meat strips are cut to a specific thickness so as to facilitate a short quick-fry that results in meat that is delicious and tender, and retains its juices. Vegetables are stir-fried in a minimum amount of oil but over high heat. Spices - and any additional oil, where necessary - are added at the end. This yields crispy-tender vegetables that are exceptionally tasty while retaining their maximum nutritional value.
The foodstuffs relevant to dry-braising are, for example, beef and fiber-rich vegetables which require more time to break down. They are diced into appropriate-sized pieces and heated in a thicker iron pot, under continual stirring. Only when all the liquids have been forced out of the meat & vegetable mixture and most of the water content has evaporated are the spices, and any additional oil, added. Also this process results in a dish whose textures are crisp, not soggy, with maximum nutrition conservation and with exceptional tastes. More traditional braising methods are also used, where corn starch is combined at the end to produce a rich gravy.
Dry-stewing is a method reserved for soup-based sauces, where a soup or broth is first reduced over low heat, then the "condiment" sauce that has been made in advance - typically broad-bean or chili sauce - is added and heated up. This sauce is typically slightly oilier - and correspondingly more hearty in flavor - than other, thinner sauces, or sauces made with milk or corn starch.
3 - Sichuan Cuisine is known for its freshwater fish, crayfish and other aquatic foodstuffs, and for its curing methods such as salting, smoking, air-drying and pickling. The tradition of curing meats especially stems from the fact that the province is hot and humid, and in ancient times, refrigeration was not available. The number of fish dishes common to Sichuan Cuisine are impressive, and include innovative fish sauces as well as dry-stewing methods for whole fish. The most impressive - and impressively mouthwatering - aspect of the fish recipes of Sichuan Province, notwithstanding the province's freshwater-fish only tradition, are the unique taste experiences that result from the wide array of seasonings available to a Sichuan chef and the many special blends that can result thereof.
Special cooking techniques are often employed to achieve unique tastes. For example, when different foodstuffs are to be combined, the separate sauces or broths associated with each are first reduced separately in an extremely hot wok in order to produce distinct flavors that retain their uniqueness even when later combined.
Representative Sichuan dishes include: Dry-Braised Carp, Dry-Stewed Fish with Bean Sauce, Crucian Carp (Carassius carassius) in Broad-Bean Sauce, Julienned Pork in Fish-Flavored Chili Sauce, Boiled Pork with Mashed Garlic, Minced Chicken With Hollyhock, Spicy Diced Chicken with Peanuts, Crisp Duck Roasted with Camphor and Tea, Boiled Chinese Cabbage, Twice Cooked Pork, and - yes! - Braised Bear's Paw, not to forget Mapo Doufu, or Pockmarked Woman's Bean Curd/ Tofu (where the cubed tofu is cooked over low heat in a sauce composed of ground beef spiced with the usual dry chilies and crushed dry peppercorns… the woman in question was said to be the wife of the inventor of this recipe, who (the wife) may or may not have been flattered by her husband's manner of immortalizing her) and Tea Smoked Duck, or smoked duck where tea leaves are added during the smoking process for fragrance, which turns out to be the only "spice" in this dish, proving that not all Sichuan Cuisine dishes are either spicy or hot, though this may very well be the exception that proves the rule!