Sichuan Cookery: The Story behind this relatively unknown Chinese Cuisine.

Text attracts and information on Sichuan cooking taken from my favourite cooking book so far:

Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop

became fascinated by Chinese food when I lived there last year, especially with the array of flavours that were on offer. Much unlike the oily food seen in Western Europe that is all wok fried with soya sauce as a base, the food of China is far more diverse, tasteful and fresh that what we commonly associate with it. I wanted to develop my cookery skills in Chinese cuisine so went in search of a good Chinese  cookery book. Knowing my love of spice, I decided upon Sichuanese recipes. This part of China is known for rich flavours and spicy food with many of its dishes in arrays of red and yellow.

Now, It doesn’t make it easy searching for Chinese cookbook when I have already made the Western rooky error from the beginning, going in search of a cookbook for ‘Chinese’ Cookery is very vague considering the proportion of the country, it is more like a continent, with different areas displaying very different cooking techniques and flavours. Having past understanding of China, it was easy for me to decide upon Sichuan, but for people who are unfamiliar with the differences, I would recommend choosing one of the regions from the map and exploring the taste attributes to these places.

Chinese cuisine is almost always treated as one great tradition, with few regional variations… However, it is the differences which seem to matter, the differences among the fresh natural flavours of the south, the sweeter, oiler cooking of the eastern cooking areas and spicy western diet; between the wheaten staples of the north and southern use of rice.

Sichuan cookery is a spicy cuisine and for some it can be too hot, but I find that the artful way Sichuanese use spice makes it enjoyable and doesn’t make your tongue so numb that you cannot enjoy the other flavours. I was intrigued to learn how they achieve such a balance in flavour and spice. Dunlop explains:

Dried chillies, sizzled in oil, give the ‘scorched chilli flavour’, combined with Sichuan pepper this transforms in to a ‘Hot-and-Numbing’ dish. Milder chillies pickles in brine and spices yield and more subtle heat and sensational ‘fish fragrant flavour’ with it’s mix of salty, sweet, sour and spicy tastes. Chilli and broad bean paste are used for ‘homestyle’ cooking, ground chillies and chilli oil used for cold appetizers and ‘strange flavour’ recipes have a salty, sweet, hot, sour and nutty flavour. The chillies is never meant to overwhelm the flavours of the other ingredients, however, but to heighten sensation and to open up the palate to a rich variety of tastes.

The History of Sichuan Pepper: A symbol of everything good

Fact 1: Local people say the fragrance is so strong that you can rub the raw spice of to your palm and still smell it on the back of your hand, through skin and bone.

Fact 2: Hanyuan Sichuan pepper was used as a scent before it was used as a cooking spice, and it was highly prized and offered in tribute to the emperors of China.

Fact 3: In the Han period, spice was mixed into the mud walls of the residences of imperial concubines, which became known as ‘pepper houses’. Because the pepper bears many seeds it because a traditional symbol of fertility.

Fact 4: Sichuan pepper is thrown over bride and grooms at weddings in rural areas.

Fact 5: In Chinese Medicine, dampness is seen as dangerously unhealthy, for it impairs the yang energy of the body and causes sluggishness. The best way to restore a healthy equilibrium is to eat foods that drive out moisture and dispel cold, which makes chillies, ginger and pepper part of the perfect local diet.

Sichuan’s culture and cookery is distinctly different to other parts of China, and is seen to have the tastiest food in the land. This is why you will find an array of Sichuan restaurants in other regions of China which are very popular. It is normal to attend these restaurants when doing banquets, something very popular in Chinese culture. Sichuan is known for it’s good banqueting and why not go to them for the riches of food?

Some ascribe the distinctiveness of Sichuan cooking to geographical isolation. The Sichuan basin is ringed by mountains, and a Tibetan plateau in the west with the only way out being the Yangtze river in olden times. Before transport reaching this area was difficult, and giving the area a distinct culture and culinary technique.

There is Far far more information in Fuschia Dunlop’s book, but you will just have to read it yourself. Due to her ability to learn chinese, she managed to take part in private classes at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine giving her the ability to learn the craft in detail and it is fascinating to read about the history behind the cooking. Not only that, but she has chapters dedicated to explaining ingredients, and culinary techniques in cookery that can be found no where else. Sichuan cookery is said to have 33 cookery terms, with different terms to different ways of cutting meat, and particular vegetables to achieve visual and taste perfectly. She also displays the important cookery techniques (no it’s not just wok fried!). Your outlook on cooking will never be the same, and skills she teaches can be implemented into all forms of cookery. This book shows how food can be art. I cannot wait to try the recipes!

Events run by Fuchsia Dunlop in London THIS WEEK!:
19/06/12: Cooking Demonstration at Divertimenti £36
20/06/12: Talk about cooking at Asia House £10
Bookings at:
Restaurants (London): Bar Shu (Soho)
Ba Shan (Chinatown)


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