Finally, we’ve reached the end of our posts about China! And it’s fitting to end with an article about Sichuan food, which in some ways is like China’s essence distilled – for it is something very intense and in-your-face, but also deeply nuanced in ways that we Westerners might have difficulty grasping. Sichuan food, in short, is one of the things we’ll always remember about our ten weeks in China. Indeed, our experiences with this spicy fare comprise some of our fondest memories of the country.
A little about Sichuan food, aside from its infamous level of heat: It’s a style of cuisine that originated in the Sichuan Province of China. Countless dishes make up the Sichuan pantheon, but all of them have a similar flavor profile that includes pungent, spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, aromatic, and salty elements. The Sichuan pepper itself isn’t spicy so much as tingly or numbing. But make no mistake, many of the dishes you order will set your whole face on fire.
Way back in Beijing we took a Sichuan 101 class at Hutong Cuisine Cooking School. There we learned how to make several key dishes including mapo dofu (cubes of tofu in a spicy sauce), fried green beans with chili and Sichuan pepper, and Sichuan stir-fried beef. It was a fun activity for us since we were later able to identify some ingredients in meals we ordered throughout China.
All of this is fine and good, but our favorite Sichuan food has to be hot pot – an interactive meal where you cook meats and vegetables in hot broth, fondue-style.
Some restaurants allow you to order the hot pot itself and then walk around and choose your favorite dippers. The “DIY” style of restaurant gives you the freedom to try a lot of new things you might not order otherwise.
We found that it’s best to come prepared with tissues and lip balm. And make sure to order some beer to cool down your mouth, since water just doesn’t cut it. Oh, and TUMS. You’ll know it’s good if you start getting heartburn before you even get up from the table.
If you go to Beijing, you have to try the Sichuan food on Ghost Street – namely the restaurant Jingui Xiaoshancheng. Trust me on this one. In the event that we return to Beijing I’ll be eating at this restaurant every day even while the food is so spicy it eats a hole in my stomach.
We had hot pot in a lot of other places: Shanghai, Sanya, Taipei, and even in Sichuan Province itself. But we didn’t find any other restaurants that achieved the same depth of flavor and such a perfect balance of hot and numb-y.
JX also has something called ma xiao, aka spicy little things – crawdads stewed up with a scandalous amount of peppercorns and garlic, all swimming in a pool of bright red chili oil.
A big thank you to Rachel and Logan over at Boots in the Oven. Without your tip we never would have found Jingui Xiaoshancheng!