Any Sichuanese menu can bring forth a puzzling choice – from rabbit heads to a simple vegetable soup to a classic kung pao chicken. Flavoured, infused oils are condiments used in the same way as the many spice pastes that exist. The intricacies of both Sichuan pantry staples and ingredients are complex enough to fill an entire cookbook with core recipes.
Thankfully, this is exactly what British writer Fuchsia Dunlop has done with her book Sichuan Cookery (published in the US as Land of Plenty) and her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. Both illustrate the food and lifestyle of one of China’s most delicious provinces in intricate detail. During Dunlop’s recent visit to Beijing, she explained to us her love of Sichuan cooking and why it isn’t always as fiery as it is portrayed here in Beijing.
What staple dishes do you always order in a Sichuan restaurant?
Fish-fragrant aubergines (yu xiang qiezi). In this dish, I’m looking for a rich and harmonious ‘fish-fragrant’ flavour, which is to say a mix of pickled chillies, ginger and garlic, gently sizzled in oil to extract their flavours, and then enhanced by a bit of sweet and sour and a fresh hit of green spring onion. It should be so beautifully balanced that it makes you sigh with pleasure!
In 1997, the city of Chongqing was split off from Sichuan province and incorporated into the Chongqing municipality. How does Chongqing’s food now fit into Sichuan’s palate?
Chongqing food tends to be spicier than that of Chengdu [capital of Sichuan province], because of the city’s extremely humid climate (you need to eat chillies, according to Chinese medicine, to dispel the unhealthy dampness). Local people often use smaller, more fiery chillies than those common to Chengdu. And Chongqing, of course, is the home of the famous numbing-and-hot ox tripe hotpot, and lazi ji (chicken in a pile of chillies). There’s inevitably variation in eating customs across Sichuan; the whole Sichuan/Chongqing area is about the size of France! But there’s also a lot of mixing: look, for example, at the popularity of Chongqing hotpot in Chengdu.
How would you say Beijing’s version of Sichuan food differs from what you would find in the province itself?
The craze for Sichuan cooking in Beijing and other places tends to focus on the most dramatic Sichuan dishes, the mala (numbing) concoctions and the sizzling, oily dishes like shui zhu yu, so that’s probably what people think of when they think of Sichuanese cuisine. But Sichuanese cuisine is incredibly diverse, and there are many gentle dishes as well as the mala ones. A good Sichuanese meal will always include a balance between spicy and mild dishes: the whole point is to have a thrilling variety of flavours. Sichuanese food also tends to get milder as you move up the social scale, so more casual restaurants will be spicier, and smarter ones less hot and more refined.
Any recommendations on pairing wine with Sichuanese cuisine?
You need some acid to balance the richness and oiliness, with perhaps a hint of sweetness, but not too much (an off-dry white wine, for example), and some fruitiness to stand up to the boldness of the flavours of the food. Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are often favoured, and champagne and sparking wines can work well. Tannic reds should definitely be avoided, but pinot noirs can work.
Find out more about Fuschia Dunlop and her books on Sichuan cuisine at fuchsiadunlop.com