Sichuan Cuisine (川菜)

Sichuan Cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in China. In this article, you will read about the favourites of our author Maya, who has spent a lot of time eating in Chengdu, and also more about the background story behind Sichuan’s numbing spicy deliciousness.

This article is part of our series «Eight Great Cuisines of China». Read more about the other cuisines we already covered: «Shandong Cuisine (鲁菜)», «Guangdong Cuisine (粤菜)», «Anhui Cuisine (徽菜)» or «Jiangsu Cuisine (苏菜)» and Hunan Cuisine.

I have a special tooth for Sichuan cuisine since I spent a whole year plus many visits in and around the capital Chengdu. So I had plenty of time to find good food and now it’s very hard to boil it down to just a few favourites. But before we dive into these, let’s talk about the characteristics and the history of „Chuan Cai.“

Most people know that Sichuanese food is spicy. But as you may already know from our previous article about Hunan Cuisine, it’s not just spicy, but numb-spicy. The numbing part comes from the ubiqitous Sichuan pepper, or huajiao. Love it or hate it, but it makes eating Sichuanese food just so much more savoury and fun.

Image of Sichuan pepper (hujiao) in a glass
Numbing deliciousness: Sichuan pepper

Sichuan Cuisine History

If we look back on food history in Sichuan, the spicy part actually doesn’t have such a long history. Chilis only got introduced to China through sea trade by the end of the Ming Dynasty (17th century). Sichuan being very far away from China’s shores, the introduction took until around 1800.

Food historians divide Sichuan cuisine into „old“ and „modern“ Sichuan cuisine. The „old“ Sichuan style was not spicy, but still using Sichuan pepper with an emphasis on braised foods. The „modern“ version of Sichuan Cuisine evolved slowly after the devastation of the peasant revolt in the 17th Century, which left big parts of Sichuan depopulated and its capital Chengdu in ruins. Along with the introduction of other exotic plants such as sweet potato and tobacco, chili pepper became widely planted and used.

Now, enough of the history! Let’s move on to the mouthwatering dishes.

Sichuan Dishes – a very Subjective Selection

One of the most famous dishes you probably have heard of is hotpot. While there are many varieties of hotpot in China, the Sichuan one is by far the most dominant one. Purists will go to Chongqing for their most authentic (地道) spicy hotpot, but you will find hotpot all over Sichuan, Chongqing, and beyond.

Hotpot feast

A bit less known, but my personal favourite, is Maocai (冒菜), a „hotpot for one person.“ Usually, you can pick whatever ingredients you want at the restaurant and that followed, you will get served your bowl of deliciousness.

There is still another Chengdu variation of hotpot called “skewers”, or chuanchuan (串串), where all the ingredients are on skewers and cooked in hotpot sauce. There simply is a variation of hotpot for everyone!

If you have not caught hotpot fever yet, then maybe this song with the title „Hotpot Stock“ by Sichuan rapper GAI will certainly convince you.

But you don’t have to travel to Sichuan, China to eat delicious hotpot – you can also get it right here in Zurich in various places. The hotpot served at Lotus Garden is dedinitely Zurich Chinatown apporoved.

Chengdu is also the “capital of snacks,” or 小食. You will find them anywhere in the city and there are even sit-down restaurants selling a plethora of small dishes. You will find a lot of stalls around the Wuhouci temple area.

One of my favourite activities when in Chengdu: Going to People’s Park in the centre town and eat snacks while watching people perform all kinds of amazing skills.

People's Park in Chengdu image of dancing women
There’s always a performance at People’s Park in Chengdu

Let’s put the focus on two of my favourites now: “Douhua”, or soft tofu, topped with many spices and a generous spoonful of chili oil. The soft and cool tofu melts beautifully into the spicy sauce. Then there are “Sweet liquid noodles” (甜水面), a very thick noodle in a sweet and salty sauce. The video below shows you how to make this simple dish at home.

Sichuan not only has plenty of veggies to offer, but thanks to big rivers and lakes, it also has plenty of fish. One classic Sichuan fish dish is „Water boiled fish“ (水煮鱼). Though you might expect a rather bland dish from the name, seeing the chunks of fish swimming in chili and Sichuan pepper, you will know it’s actually super spicy and mouth-numbing.

„Water boiled fish“ (水煮鱼) – spicy and numbing

Two more Sichuan dishes are very popular in Chinese restaurants in Switzerland: Mapo Doufu and Gongbao Chicken (sometimes also called Kung Pao Chicken). However, having tasted the original in Sichuan, I tend not to order these dishes here, as they usually taste nothing like that. Especially Mapo Doufu is often made entirely from off-the-shelf fermented chili sauce (Doubanjiang) – a sad truth about many restaurants here.

As a tea lover, I have to mention that tea houses are an essential part of Chengdu – one of the reasons why life there is often called “slow living.” The most popular teas are jasmine green tea or plain green tea. Various green teas are grown in the mountains around Chengdu such as Mengding or Emei green tea.

I want to finish off the article with a recipe: „Fish flavouring eggplant,“ 鱼香茄子. While not being as spicy as your average Sichuan dish, it’s very versatile and tasty. Basically, you can make any veggie or meat into a „fish flavouring“ dish by adding the „fish flavouring sauce“ made of soy sauce and other ingredients.

Watch our favourite Youtube chef Wang Gang making this Sichuan classic:

You could also fry the eggplant instead of steaming it, that’s why this recipe is called the „less oily version.“