Many Chinese restaurants in the nation still offer takeout or delivery only due to the coronavirus pandemic. While Americans are happy to support local restaurants forced to shutdown for several weeks or even months, some have decided to use this time to learn how to cook more often at home. Preparing dishes that originated in another country has been an especially fun challenge for people who normally dine out or order takeout several times a week.
Below are several tips for those interested in cooking Sichuan cuisine at home.
How the Sichuanese Came to Love the Hot and Spicy Peppercorn
A few theories exist as to why people native to Sichuan developed a taste for such mouth-numbing food. As one story goes, the climate of Sichuan is so humid and muggy that people naturally gravitated toward strong and spicy foods. Another theory considers the numerous flavors of Sichuan food, including:
Adding chili paste to these ingredients has the effect of making the flavors of each of them richer. They also help to cleanse the palate to get ready for the next dish. In Sichuan, this style of cooking is most common when people prepare food at home and is far less common in restaurants.
Start by Gathering the Right Ingredients
Although people have different preferences for the main ingredients in a Sichuan dish, none would be complete without peppercorns, also known as hua jiao, along with pickled mustard root and hot pepper paste. These give the Sichuan food its famous numbing spiciness. In the past, finding these authentic Chinese ingredients was challenging even in the dozens of official Chinatowns in the United States. With the explosive popularity of online shopping, anyone should be able to find what they need to start cooking this unique and mouth-watering food.
Season the Wok Before Cooking
Meat, vegetables, and other ingredients in a wok can easily stick to the side and make the end result less appealing. The best way to avoid this is to add a small amount of oil to the wok and heating it to an extremely high temperature. Once the oil starts to boil, turn down the stovetop heat and allow it to cool before dumping it. Adding fresh oil just before starting the cooking process ensures that nothing will stick to the side of the wok. After all, no one wants to waste ingredients they worked so hard to get. Another tip is to cut the ingredients evenly to allow them to cook evenly.
Consider Investing in a Bamboo Steamer Too
For foods that require steaming, a bamboo steamer can work better than a wok. That is because metal lids on woks can cause water to collect on the lid. When the cook removes the food inside the wok, the water from the lid can fall onto the plate, dampen it, and degrade the taste. This would happen when using steamers with a bamboo lid. Additionally, bamboo steamers help to preserve the food’s nutritional value and are one of the oldest and most authentic ways to prepare Sichuan food.
While the above are only a handful of tips, they should be enough for anyone who wants to try their hand at cooking Sichuan at home.
People who live in the Sichuan region of China know that the food there is varied and that each dish has a sophisticated as well as a complex taste. Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t translate well to Western culture. In the United States, people primarily consider Sichuan Chinese food to be extremely hot and spicy and little else.
Understanding the History of Sichuan Chinese Food
The reason so many Westerners don’t fully appreciate Sichuan food is that they don’t understand the history and culture of this region of China. For one thing, it isn’t easy to reach China’s Sichuan basin because it’s surrounded on all four sides by mountains. Another important fact about the Sichuan basin is that the Qinghai-Tibet plateau sits to the west of it. Many Chinese citizens and immigrants alike saw the difficulty in reaching the Sichuan basin as a challenge to overcome. As immigrants continued to pour into the region, they brought new cultural and culinary customs with them.
A Primer on the Flavors of Sichuan Dishes
Increased appreciation for food from the Sichuan region of China can also come from having a greater understanding of its main flavors. Although more than 20 exist, five of the most common ones include:
– Fish fragrant: Chefs don’t really use fish to create this flavor. Instead, they combine seasonings popular with traditional fish cookery in China. These include ginger, garlic, pickled red chilies, scallion, soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar.
– Garlic paste flavor: For the first step, a chef simmers soy sauce with spices and brown sugar. He or she then combines it with chili oil, mashed garlic, and sesame oil. This topping is especially popular on cold pork.
– Scorched chili flavor: To prepare this seasoning, a chef fries dried chilies inside of a wok until they show signs of toasting and darkening. He or she then adds several other ingredients to the wok, including Sichuan peppercorn.
– Spicy sesame: This basic ingredient typically tops cold dishes. It comes from a combination of dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorn.
– Wine fragrant: Chefs create this flavor primarily from rice wine and rice wine lees. It produces a fragmented flavor that Westerners might recognize from Chinese dishes from the region of Shanghai. However, a dash of Sichuan peppercorn helps to differentiate it.
Some Well-Known Sichuan Dishes
Even though they may not recognize the above flavors, many Western diners do recognize popular Sichuan dishes served here. Kung Pao Chicken, for example, is a staple on the menu of a lot of Chinese restaurants. It includes diced chicken along with golden peanuts and dry red peppers. Dan Dan noodles, also known as Dan Dan Mian, is another well-known Sichuan Chinese dish in America. An authentic serving of Dan Dan noodles contains vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, and minced pork. While it’s more on the bland side outside of the Sichuan basin, it’s known for its strong nutty, savory, smoky, and spicy flavors in its home region.
These are just two of the many dishes Sichuan dishes Americans can enjoy in their own country. To truly experience Sichuan culture, they should consider expanding their taste buds and try several others.
At Chili House SF, in addition to Sichuan cuisine, much of our food is inspired by or comes from dishes native to the Beijing Region. To truly appreciate this style of food, one must travel to Beijing itself. However, Our authentic cuisine here in the Richmond District of San Francisco is the next-best thing.
For those lucky enough to get to experience Beijing in person, here are 7 sights not to be missed!
China has long been associated with a sense of exotic mystery, and its recent political history means it’s still something of an unknown quantity for even for the most intrepid traveler. However, the last few decades have seen the country open up to western visitors, and it is now a viable destination for the adventurous tourist.
It would take a lifetime to explore the entire country, but these seven sights in and around the capital Beijing offer a fascinating taste of China, from its imperial past right through to its modern, fast-developing face of today.
The Forbidden City
Spread over an area of 178 acres and made up of over 870 distinct buildings, the Forbidden City is the biggest palatial complex of its kind in the world. The site served as the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to 1912 and remains a treasure trove of Chinese imperial history, culture, and architecture. It is now home to the Palace Museum, which is among the world’s most visited museums, with close to 15 million visitors each year.
The Great Wall
It’s often said that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. This is, unfortunately, a myth, but there’s no doubt that this ancient fortification is one of the planet’s must-see structures from solid ground.
The wall stretches for close to 4,000 miles in full, but several parts are within easy reach of the capital – particularly Mutianyu and Jiankou, to the northeast of downtown Beijing. Around 70,000 people visit the wall each day, but its sheer size means that you won’t feel too crowded out. However, be aware that the authorities take conservation of the wall extremely seriously, and dropping garbage and similar actions can quickly land you in hot water, so be sure to behave respectfully.
The vast, hundred-acre Tiananmen Square in central Beijing is perhaps most widely known in the West for the grim events of 1989, when a pro-democracy demonstration was ended with lethal force. Although the square is worth visiting for its impressive architecture and monuments, including the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, it is nonetheless most notable for this recent history. A trip to this largest paved square in the world brings it home to the visitor that despite the recent transformation, China is still a unique, complex country behind the modern western-style facade.
Yonghe Lama Temple
The Yonghe Lama Temple in Dongcheng dates back to the Qing dynasty, with construction started in the late 17th century. Although it was off limits for 32 years following the communist revolution, it is now open once more as both a working Tibetan temple and a popular tourist attraction. Perhaps the most impressive sight is the huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha, reaching nearly 20 yards in height, and carved from a single piece of white sandalwood.
Beijing visitors have no shortage of imperial splendor to marvel at, contrasting sharply with the fast-growing modern cityscape of the capital’s downtown area, but there’s yet another side to Chinese life no visitor should miss. The hutong neighborhoods such as Donxujuaominxiang, Yichidajie, and others are labyrinths of narrow streets and alleyways which once covered the city, but are slowly being lost to redevelopment. However, the remaining areas still give a powerful taste of old China and make a fascinating destination for a leisurely stroll through the hubbub of daily life.
Food lovers willing to look beyond their hotel dining room will find plenty to thrill here, not least the delicious Beijing duck (aka Peking duck) available from handcarts and stalls spread throughout the area.
Wangfujing Night Market
If the Beijing duck has whetted your appetite for Chinese cuisine in all its many forms, then the Wangfujing Night Market in the Dongcheng district should be your next destination. This market is a mecca for street food and is beloved of locals and visitors alike. Be warned though – with the snacking options covering everything from scorpions to starfish, this is no place for the squeamish.
Lastly, fascinating as Beijing can be, there’s no doubt the bustle and size can be a little overwhelming. Recharge your batteries with a trip to the Ming Tombs on the Changping district, 26 miles to the north of Beijing city center. The complex hosts 13 mausoleums of the Ming dynasty emperors and is as impressive as you’d expect from this pedigree. However, one of its main charms is that it was constructed according to feng shui principles, with a peaceful valley backing on to protective mountains, and makes for an ideal change of pace for weary tourists.
China remains on the list of destinations that only the more intrepid travelers will attempt, and there’s no doubt it can be a little more challenging than other more conventional tourist locations. However, the impressive delights of Beijing and surrounding areas make it well worth the effort for anyone with a love for oriental history and culture.