Of the eight major schools of China’s culinary art, Sichuan cuisine is perhaps the most popular. Originating in Sichuan Province of westernChina, Sichuan cuisine,known asChuan Caiin Chinese, enjoys an international reputation for being spicy and flavorful. Yet the highly distinctive pungency is not its only characteristic. In fact, Sichuan cuisine boasts a variety of flavors and different methods of cooking, featuring the taste of hot, sweet, sour, salty, or tongue-numbing.
The origin of Sichuan cuisine can be traced back to the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC-220AD), its recognition as a distinct regional system took place in the Han Dynasties (206BC-220AD). As a unique style of food, Sichuan cuisine was famous more than 800 years ago during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) when Sichuan restaurants were opened in Lin’an, now called Hangzhou, the capital. The hot pepper was introduced into China from South America around the end of the 17th century. Once it came to Sichuan, it became a favored food flavoring. In the late Qing Dynasty around 19th century, Sichuan cuisine became a unique local flavor, enjoying the same reputation with Shandong, Guangdong (Canton) and Huaiyang cuisines.
Sichuan has high humidity and many rainy or overcast days. Hot pepper helps reduce internal dampness, so it was used frequently in dishes, and hot dishes became the norm in Sichuan cuisine. The region’s warm, humid climate also necessitates sophisticated food-preservation techniques which include picking, salting, drying and smoking.
Sichuan has been known as the land of plenty since ancient times. It produces abundant domestic animals, poultry, and freshwater fish and crayfish. Sichuan cuisine is well known for cooking fish. The raw materials are delicacies from land and river, edible wild herbs, and the meat of domestic animals and birds. Beef is more common in Sichuan cuisine than it is in other Chinese cuisines, perhaps due to the widespread use of oxen in the region. Stir-fried beef is often cooked until chewy, while steamed beef is sometimes coated with rice flour to produce rich gravy.
Sichuan dishes consist of Chengdu, Chongqing and vegetarian dishes. Masterly used cooking techniques are sauteing, stir-frying without stewing, dry-braising,Pao(soaking in water) and Hui (frying then braising with corn flour sauce). Sichuan cuisine is famous for its distinct and various flavors, the most outstanding ones are fish flavors, pepper powder boiled in oil, strange flavor and sticky-hot.
Statistics show that the number of Sichuan dishes has surpassed 5,000. Dishes typical of Sichuan are twice cooked pork, spicy diced chicken with peanuts, dry-fried shark fin, and fish-flavored pork shred. One of the popular dishes is Pockmarked Woman’s bean curd (orMapo Doufuin Chinese) which was invented by a Chengdu chef’s pockmarked wife decades ago in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The cubed bean curd is cooked over a low flame in a sauce which contains ground beef, chili, and pepper. When served, the bean curd is tender, spicy, and appetizing. Although many Sichuan dishes live up to their spicy reputation, often ignored are the large percentage of recipes that use little or no spice at all, including recipes such as “tea smoked duck”.