Sichuan Province is home to one of China’s most widely respected Eight Great cuisines. While not as popular outside the country as Cantonese cuisine, inside the country it is highly regarded. Some would argue that it rivals Cantonese cuisine as the the Middle Kingtom’s top cooking style.
In sharp contrast to Cantonese cuisine, which features fresh ingredients and subtlety enhanced natural flavours, Sichuanese cuisine is strongly flavoured and highly spiced.
Located in Southwestern China, Sichuan Province is hot and humid much of the year. Before the introduction of refrigeration and air conditioning, food preservation was an major issue. Innovative methods such as drying, pickling, salting, and smoking were developed to preserve foods. These techniques also significantly enhanced their flavours.
There are nearly 40 different cooking methods, with ingredients running from chili peppers and garlic to fermented black beans, ginger, scallions, sesame, soy sauce, and wine. What sets Sichuanese cuisine apart from Hunanese, which is also noted for its spiciness, is the liberal use of a numbing pepper called ma la (麻辣). The taste sensation this pepper creates in the mouth is difficult to describe. There is no adequate translation for the term in English. Many restaurants purporting to serve Sichuanese cuisine outside mainland China do not have access to ma la peppers. As a result, the food – while often very, very tasty – is not really authentic.
Sichuanese restaurants are scattered all over Shenzhen. It is arguably the city’s most popular cooking style. While some of the other regional cuisines were difficult to track down, with Sichuanese cuisine, there was a spoil of riches. With one or more outlets on practically every block, the question here was not, “Can I find one?” It was more an issue of, “Which one is the best Sichuanese restaurant in town?
I had a secret weapon: friends from Sichuan, and one of them was a chef! On his night off, I asked him to recommend the city’s best Sichuanese restaurant and guide me through the menu. He did, and he did not let me down.
Copyright: Michael Taylor