Many people when asked about Szechuan cuisine immediately think of hot, spicy food that has you gulping down copious amounts of water for the rest of the evening to try and cool their burning taste buds. People are then often surprised to discover that at least of one-third of the recipes that make up Szechuan cuisine are not spicy at all. That is not to say that Szechuan’s reputation for producing “mouthburners” is undeserved. But, along with fiery classics such as “Hot and Numbing Fish” and “Kung Pao Chicken,” Szechuan is the home of “Tea Smoked Duck”, which is a fascinating dish made by smoking a duck over tea leaves.
It is unclear precisely how chilli peppers were introduced to Szechuan, a landlocked, mountain-ringed region in western China. The most accepted view is that Indian missionaries brought chillies with them during their travels along China’s famous Silk Route – a series of pathways originally constructed during the Han dynasty for military and strategic purposes that subsequently gained more importance as a major trade route. Another theory is that they were brought in by Chinese merchants trading with Portuguese and Spanish sailors at various seaports. In any event, today chilli peppers are an indispensable feature of Chinese regional cuisine. Dried peppers are frequently used in Szechuan dishes, while cooks favour fresh peppers in the neighbouring province of Hunan.
Tip – Ever hear the expression “Oil and water don’t mix”? It’s true, which is why drinking water doesn’t help combat the effects of spicy foods. Since most spices are oily, the water just rolls over the spice. Eat rice instead – it absorbs the hot chilli oil. Beer or milk also help.
Szechuan pepper is an important ingredient in Szechuan cooking, also known as pepper flower, Chinese pepper. Szechuan pepper is not a pepper at all. Instead, the reddish-brown fruit – one of the ingredients in five spice powder – is a berry that comes from the prickly ash tree. While not as hot as chilli pepper, it does have a unique flavour, and is famous for its numbing effect on the tongue.
Of course, all of this begs the question: how did the Szechuanese develop their taste for fiery hot cuisine? One common explanation is that Szechuan’s muggy, humid climate encourages people to eat strongly spiced foods. There’s more to it than that, however. Szechuan dishes often contain many flavours, such as sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, and fragrant. Hot foods like red chilli stimulate the palate, making it more sensitive to all these flavours. In addition, they cleanse the palate in preparation for the next dish.
Foods featured in Szechuan cooking
Chilli peppers, Szechuan pepper, garlic, salt, and dried and pickled ingredients such as Szechuan preserved vegetable. Beef, lamb, and pork, although the Szechuanese eat less pork than neighboring Hunan, which is famous for its ham.
Cooking methods: Szechuan cooks employ a variety of cooking methods, from stir-frying to roasting and simmering. Twice Cooked Pork, where the pork is first boiled and then stir-fried, is a classic regional dish.
Szechuan Chicken Recipe
* 4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, about 7 ounces each
* 2 egg whites
* 2 tablespoons cornstarch
* 2 tablespoons rice wine, dry sherry or cooking wine
* 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
* 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
* 2 tablespoons sesame oil
* 1 tablespoon soy sauce
* 2 tablespoon brown sugar
* 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chillies, or to taste
* 2 slices ginger, minced, to form 1 tablespoon
* 4 carrots, cut into thin strips
* 1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
* 1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
* 3 green onions, chopped
* 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Cut the chicken breasts into thin strips. (Partially freeze chicken breasts first to make this easier).
3. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
4. Whisk the cornstarch into the egg whites and coat the chicken strips with the mixture
5. Heat 1 cup oil in the wok & cook the chicken strips briefly in the hot oil until they turn white.
6. Remove the chicken and drain on paper towels.
7. Clean out the wok and add 1 tablespoon oil.
8. When the oil is hot, add the carrots & stir-fry briefly before adding the peppers.
9. Make a “well” in the middle of the wok and add the sauce.
10. Heat briefly then mix the sauce in with the vegetables.
11. Return the chicken to the wok.
12. Stir-fry 1 to 2 more minutes then stir in the green onions.
13. Serve with rice.