Westerners love to treat Sichuan food as a dare or, worse, as a mild form of torture to inflict upon friends unfamiliar with the cuisine's sometimes-weaponized use of chile peppers. Just ask Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN's "Parts Unknown." During a trip to China, Bourdain used his buddy Eric Ripert as a culinary test dummy, eager to see the effects of Sichuan chile oil on the famed chef's refined French palate.
It made for good TV. It also had the unfortunate side effect of continuing to reduce a complex cuisine to its most intimidating qualities: the numbing and spicy sensations known as mala. Yes, the food from this southwestern province can be thermonuclear, spicy enough in fact to make you beg for mercy - or even call the cops on the cook. But reducing Sichuan cuisine - an ever-evolving tradition with thousands of dishes in its rotation - to little more than a vat of super-spicy chile oil is as myopic as reducing American cuisine to hot dogs and fast-food burgers.
One of eight major regional cuisines in China, Sichuan cooking is the only one that fully embraces the odd, anesthetic qualities of the province's famous red peppercorns, known as hua jiao. Here's the thing to remember about Sichuan peppercorns: They are not spicy.
Red Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. They're the dried citrus berries of the prickly ash tree, and they produce sensations unlike anything you'll experience from a standard black peppercorn. Sichuan peppercorns contain a molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool, which is thought to cause the numbing and tingling sensations on your tongue.
"No other cuisine uses numbing powder," says Lydia Chang, daughter of Chinese master chef Peter Chang and the director of business development for the family's company. "None that I can think of."
The United States banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns for nearly 40 years because of the berry's potential to harbor a canker disease that could devastate American citrus crops. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted the ban, but only for Sichuan peppercorns that had been pasteurized to kill any potential pathogens. Experts will tell you that heat-treated Sichuan peppercorns are less potent than the ones back in China.
Widely used in cooking and a prime ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, Sichuan peppercorns have a long history back in the mother country. Before they were incorporated into foods or infused into oils, they were used as scents and considered symbols of fertility because their plants bear so many seeds, writes Fuchsia Dunlop in her 2001 cookbook, "Land of Plenty."
"During the Han period, the spice was actually mixed into the mud walls of the residences of imperial concubines, which became known as 'pepper houses,'" Dunlop notes.
- - -
The Sichuan basin is an isolated land, circled by mountains. It's also a place known for its foggy, muggy and damp climate. In Chinese medicine, notes Dunlop in "Land of Plenty," "dampness is seen as dangerously unhealthy. . . . The best way to restore a healthy equilibrium is to eat foods that drive out moisture and dispel the cold."
Enter the heat.
But chile peppers didn't arrive in China from the Americas until the 16th century and didn't enter kitchens for another century or so after that. Before these American flamethrowers were incorporated into Sichuan dishes, local cooks used other ingredients to excite an eater's central nervous system, including ginger root and betel nuts. But once the chile pepper took root in Sichuan cuisine, it soon supplanted all other stimulants.
Crushed red peppers, of course, are integral to "red chile oil," an essential component to many Sichuan dishes, whether street foods such as dan dan noodles and chile wontons or the Chengdu hot pot with its bubbling cauldron of oil that diners use to cook their raw ingredients. Red chile oil is something of a misnomer. The oil isn't just about the pepper heat. The version that Peter Chang prepares, for example, includes star anise, fennel seeds, bay leaf, cinnamon, black cardamom, cloves, ginger and more.
The importance of red chile oil, says Gen Lee, a partner in many of Peter Chang's restaurants, goes beyond its moisture-dispelling heat. The oil also provides fragrance and helps stimulate a diner's appetite with its ruby-red color and surface sheen.
"If people don't think [a dish] looks good," Lee says, "they don't want to taste it."
- - -
For many Westerners, Sichuan cuisine boils down to those numbing-and-spicy mala sensations. But the food of Sichuan has many more expressions. Dunlop lays out 23 different combinations in "Land of Plenty." They range from the home-style flavors - salty, savory, slightly spicy - of double-cooked pork and mapo tofu to the salty, savory and slightly sour flavors tucked into dishes such as okra and scallops with mustard sauce.
Back in the kitchen at Q by Peter Chang, in Bethesda, Maryland, the celebrated chef ladles out glossy chicken breasts over a neat circle of baby bok choy, each miniature cabbage head impaled with a goji berry. There's not any chile oil in sight. So what makes the dish Sichuan? Those breast cutlets, it turns out, are actually fried lengths of minced chicken mixed with egg whites and flour, a velvety specialty known as fu-rong chicken, explains Chuck Ye, a manager at Q.
"When people talk about Sichuan food, they think it's all very oily, very heavy," Ye says. "Actually, that's not true. They have some light dishes." The province also has surprising breadth and depth, from vendors who sell nothing but fried lengths of twisted dough to elaborate banquets that feature Sichuan's famous stewed duck with caterpillar fungus. (Fungal spores, Dunlop notes, actually invade and grow inside a larval insect until all that's left of the creature is a caterpillar-shaped mushroom.)
One other point to remember: All Chinese cooks value a characteristic known as xian. The term, writes Dunlop in "Land of Plenty," "expresses the indefinable, delicious taste of fresh meat, poultry and seafood, the scrumptious flavors of a pure chicken soup, the subtle magic of freshly rendered lard." Today, we might call xian by a different name: umami. The key to quality Sichuan cooking, notes Dunlop, is not to drown out the dish's essential xian with red chile oil, ginger, garlic, pickled chiles or any other pungent ingredient.
"The strong flavors," she writes, "are not meant to obliterate the natural tastes of the raw ingredients, and you should be able to taste their xian at the heart of all this spiciness."