Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine
Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine
What is widely called Sichuan cuisine is part of a broader suite of culinary traditions more properly regarded as the cuisine of west China. Traditionally, Chinese schematize the world in sets of five. In this scheme, the great cuisines of China are those of Beijing, Sichuan (or Hunan-Sichuan), Shandong, the Yangzi delta, and Guangdong. It is, however, more ecologically and geographically accurate to divide Chinese cuisine into north (including Beijing and Shandong), east, south, and west.
Included in the western group are the cuisines of Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, Gueizhou, and (marginally) Hubei. Boundaries of culinary regions do not correspond exactly with the boundaries of provinces. Yunnan and Gueizhou have large aboriginal populations with distinctive foodways. Parts of Hubei and other provinces shade off into other culinary regions.
West of Sichuan lies Tibet. This vast highland produces few foodstuffs. Barley and buckwheat, which grow at high elevations, are staples. Particularly important to nomadic herders and other travelers is tsamba: barley parched (roasted in the oven) and ground into meal. This can be mixed with tea, milk, or broth to provide an instant meal. Dairy products are extremely important and are often made from yak milk. Butter is not only a food but also serves as sunblock, sculpture medium, gift item, and more. Vegetables are few; wild herbs are used. Feast dishes include dumplings and meat dishes related to those of China and central Asia and—especially in the south—mixed dishes with Indian and Nepalese ancestry.
Several small ethnic groups related to the Tibetans live in mountainous parts of Sichuan. Many rely on thick cakes of buckwheat, maize, or other montane grains. Most share the Chinese avoidance of dairy products, but some—those near Tibet and dependent on herding—use dairy products heavily.
North of Sichuan is Shaansi, which has its own food-ways. These are simpler than Sichuan's and are dominated by wheat products: noodles, dumplings, buns, and much more. Lamb is popular. Vegetables are rather few, and spicing is simple; chilies are used, but not so much as in Sichuan. The leading city of Shaansi is Xian, which was the capital of China—under the name Chang'an—for many centuries; it finally lost out to Beijing in the Liao Dynasty. Xian has a wide range of dishes, many of them using wheat, lamb, onions, and vinegar. (Vinegar is even more a specialty of Shansi, Shaansi's eastern neighbor.) Tang Dynasty texts already reflect this relatively simple cuisine. Central Asian influences were strong in those days and are still apparent (especially in the importance of lamb), though the popularity of dairy products—well-attested in texts between 400 and 900 C.E. has waned considerably.
The specifically west Chinese culinary world is that of the densely settled urban and agricultural regions of the middle and upper Yangzi River drainage and the plateau country south of it in Yunnan and Gueizhou. Most densely populated and agriculturally rich are the Yangzi valley and Dongting Lake area of Hunan and Hubei and the Red Basin (named for its red sandstones) and Min River outwash plains of Sichuan. Culinary dynamos have been the cities of Changsha in Hunan; Zhongqing and Chengdu in the Red Basin of central Sichuan, named from its red sandstones; and, to a lesser extent, Kunming in Yunnan. These areas have long been united by trade and communication. In addition, they have long-established ties to the north; the passes from Sichuan to Shaanxi have been major communication corridors for thousands of years.
The core of Sichuan was, in ancient times, the independent state of Shu, and Hunan was part of the great state of Chu. Chu, whose population probably spoke largely Thai languages, was one of the most powerful of the Warring States. Under the Han dynasty it retained considerable local authority for a long time. Han tombs reveal foods much like those of later periods; rice, wheat products, vegetables, and a stunning variety of fruits and nuts were eaten. Yunnan entered history as the ancient state of Tian, probably a Tibeto-Burman polity, which had a culture tied to both China and southeast Asia. Later, much of what is now Yunnan was the independent kingdom of Nanzhao, a non-Chinese state with Thai and Tibeto-Burman inhabitants. Nanzhao reached a peak during the Tang dynasty. Today, Yunnan is China's most ethnically diverse province, with almost forty minority groups; their languages belong to at least four totally unrelated phyla. Most of these groups have simple cuisines, based on grain and local vegetables, but the Thai-speaking peoples of the far south have complex dishes very similar to those of north Thailand.
Sichuan's population was reduced by perhaps as much as 75 percent in the violent period between the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was repopulated largely from Hunan and neighboring areas, resulting in a great culinary similarity between Hunan and Sichuan. Yunnan in turn received many of its Chinese inhabitants from Sichuan, but they adapted to local conditions and were influenced by non-Han nationalities, and Yunnan cuisine remains rather distinctive.
Agriculture is intensive throughout the region, especially in Hunan and Sichuan. Much of the Red Basin and nearby mountain land is terraced. Heavy use of fertilizer and compost has long been typical. Sophisticated irrigation works are typical. The Min River irrigation scheme, designed by the Li family of engineers in the third century b.c.e., is still in use, being one of the oldest (and most sophisticated) irrigation systems still in use.
Historically, this was millet and rice country, with wheat important in the northern fringes. Rice is intensively cultivated in the Yangzi drainage. Locally, in areas too high and rough for rice, buckwheat becomes important; it was traditionally the staple of the Yi nationality of the Liangshan Mountains in Sichuan.
The area has long been a recipient of new crops from outside. In medieval times, Near Eastern foods such as broad beans, sesame, and walnuts became important. Since New World food crops entered China, the extent of maize, white potatoes, and sweet potatoes has exploded in the region. Maize in particular proved ideal for the climate, and quickly replaced millet. (It is often called "Sichuan millet"—Shu shu, using the ancient name for Sichuan.) Unfortunately, maize is a heavy feeder and a poor protector of the soil, and its cultivation has led to considerable deforestation and erosion. White potatoes, introduced apparently by Catholic missionaries, do better at higher elevations, and are more important in this region than in most of China. Soybeans do only moderately well, and so were supplemented by broad beans, which entered from the Near East in early medieval times. Later, with the New World food crops, lima beans came to the region; they are locally very important in Yunnan. A variety of fermented bean products is prepared, as elsewhere in China, but this region is distinctive for the common use of broad beans in these, and for the enormous amounts of chili peppers in many fermented sauces. Distinctive, high-quality types of pickled and salted vegetables, particularly garlic, Chinese cabbages, and bamboo shoots, are typical of Sichuan, and are widely exported. The final characteristic flavor element of Sichuan cooking is dried tangerine peel, which is most often found in mixed stir-fried dishes with relatively rich, complex sauces.
The region is even more pig-dependent than other parts of China. Pork is overwhelmingly the major meat. Yunnan produces hams generally regarded as the finest in China, being quite similar to the mountain (serrano ) hams of Spain; the quality of such hams owes much to their production in cool, dry montane regions. Some minority groups of Yunnan produce a cured pig product consisting of a whole fat hog with the flesh, bones, and intestines removed, leaving only the fat in the skin, which is then sewn up. The pig wind-cures in the high, cool mountain air.
Chickens and ducks abound. Fish are found only in rivers and lakes, being abundant in Hunan but relatively less so elsewhere. Sheep and goats are raised. Cows and buffaloes are traction animals, but rare as food. Yogurt is made and consumed by Han Chinese (and some minorities) in Yunnan—a rare case of traditional consumption of dairy products by Han people. The custom probably spread from India via Tibet in medieval times. Mixed herds of livestock are, of course, common on the Tibetan plateau (including all west Sichuan), and dairy products are standard fare there.
Salt is produced from salt springs and wells. Drilling very deep salt wells has been an important and profitable industry in Sichuan for two millennia. Unlike sea salt, this salt lacks iodine, as does most food in these mountainous regions; goiter was thus common in historic times, and was known to be associated with eating local salt as opposed to sea salt.
West Chinese food is shaped by geography as well as history and communication. In stereotype, and indeed in reality, the cuisine is distinguished by two things: its use of mountain products, and its hot spicing. China's wettest and most biologically diverse areas occur in this mountainous region. Dense forests, the most diverse outside the wet tropics, provide a variety of mushrooms and fungi. Many species can be seen at a typical street market. Also abundant are bamboo shoots, herbs, and other wild plant foods.
A variety of game was once abundant, but this is now sadly depleted because of overhunting and habitat destruction. One animal of note is the pangolin, a superficially anteater-like creature with hair matted into hard scales. It is believed to be powerfully nourishing and is eaten as medicine rather than as a delicacy. A recipe from Gueizhou involves cooking it with almost every strong-flavored ingredient in the Chinese repertoire, suggesting that there is a need to kill the flavor of the animal. The pangolin appears to have no scientifically verifiable healing qualities, and is probably regarded as medicinal because of its strange appearance, which suggests powerful qi (spirit or energy).
The piquant spicing is an old tradition. The chile pepper now dominates, making this by far the spiciest cuisine in China. Chile entered from the New World in fairly recent times, probably overland from India and/or upriver from Macau and east China in the seventeenth century. However, the area relished piquancy before this. The Songs of the South, a compilation of poetry from the old state of Chu, mentions the use of smartweed, southernwood, and other pungent herbs and spices. Ginger and garlic were always commonly used. Dried daylily buds, also peppery in the mouth, have also been used since time immemorial. Also ancient in importance is huajiao, known in English as "Sichuan pepper," "brown pepper," or "fagara," and scientifically as Zanthoxylum spp. This plant is a sprawling shrub or small tree. Being thorny, it is sometimes used as a living fence that has the side benefit of producing useful fruit. The latter is a small brown berry. The berries grow twinned on a short stem, and provided an ancient poetic euphemism for the male genitalia. They have a pungent, rich taste with overtones of citrus as well as pepperiness, and they produce a peculiar numb feeling in the mouth when chewed.
At some point in ancient historic time, true pepper began to be traded into China from southeast Asia. It was enthusiastically accepted in west China. As elsewhere in China, pepper is used almost exclusively in the white form, made from immature fruits with the dark coat rubbed off, as opposed to the black form (entire mature fruits) used in most of the world.
Thus, west Chinese cooking was spicy long before chilies came, and preadapted it to the latter. Today, Hunan-Sichuan cuisine is the only one in the world that makes heavy use of all three types of pepper—brown, white, and red—and routinely uses all three in the same dishes. Chinese, like English, classes all as "peppers" (jiau is the Chinese equivalent, and originally referred to brown pepper); they are botanically unrelated. Only black (and white) pepper is in the pepper family (Piperaceae); brown pepper is in the citrus family (Rutaceae), while chilies are in the Solanaceae along with tomatoes and white potatoes.
A full meal normally consists of a starch staple, usually rice, with steamed and/or stir-fried dishes as topping, and an accompanying soup. Minor meals (breakfasts, light lunches) or snacks involve dumplings or noodle soups. Chilies, brown pepper, and other hot spices are found primarily in the stir-fried dishes and the soups.
Several Sichuan dishes have become widely known. Duck smoked over smoldering tea leaves and camphor chips is the most elegant of these. It is smoked briefly in the cooking process, not smoke-cured for long storage. More common is hot and sour soup (suan la tang ), which traditionally involves dried daylily buds, montane fungi, slivered bamboo shoots, coagulated chicken or duck blood and/or meat, sesame oil, white grain vinegar, chilies, white pepper, and sometimes other ingredients. It is a flexible recipe, varying greatly according to taste and circumstance.
Chicken is often cut into small cubes and stir-fried with chilies and various vegetables. A variant of this with peanuts (from the New World) and (usually) dried tangerine peel is Gung Bao chicken, named for a military officer said to have invented (or relished) it. A range of "fish flavored" dishes, especially eggplant, are named not because they taste like fish but because they are flavored as fish are: that is, with garlic, ginger, scallions, oil, and often Chinese "wine."
Particularly characteristic are stir-fried dishes of bean curd with garlic, brown pepper, and chilies. The most famous of these today is ma po dou fu, literally "hemp woman's bean curd," which consists of small cubes of bean curd stir-fried in sesame oil with garlic, brown pepper, chilies, and fermented broad bean–chile paste; ground or finely chopped pork is often added, as is white pepper. As usual, countless variants of this dish exist, involving such items as mushrooms or fungi. Some are quite mild, but true Sichuan versions can be literally blistering. Also countless are the theories about the name; the most believable is that the dish was invented by women of the Ma ("hemp") family.
Hunan's cuisine has the same basic flavor mix as Sichuan's, but uses more fish and chicken. Finely chopped pork, flavored and then steamed in a bamboo tube, is a distinctive dish. Yunnan cuisine is simpler. The distinctive Yunnan ham enters into almost everything. Being expensive and strong-flavored, it is used more as a spice than as a main ingredient; small amounts of chopped ham are added to dishes. Most common, and spectacular, is a dish in which oil is heated in a pan until it actually catches fire; then cooked lima beans, garlic, chilies, and ham bits are thrown into the flaming oil and quickly seared. Noodle dishes are abundant. Often the noodles are only partially cooked, then at the table they are slid into soup that is served at the boiling point; the noodles finish cooking in the soup while the diner waits. This is known as "across-the-bridge noodles."
Drinks include some of China's best tea, raised in the mountains of the area. Yunnan in particular is famous for tea. The plant originated nearby, in the area where Tibet, Burma, and India come together. Spreading to metropolitan China at some uncertain point in early historic times, it became popular during the Tang dynasty, being seen as an exotic southwestern luxury at that time. Only during Sung did it become widely important as an everyday (if expensive) drink. Other herbal teas and drinks are common and are used for a range of ills.
Alcoholic drinks run the usual gamut of grain-based "wines" and distilled liquors. Gueizhou is famous for its maotai, powerful clear liquor traditionally distilled from millet. Most of the minority groups brew distinctive "wines" or beers from rice or other grains. Drinking these local products is important on festive occasions, including the widespread spring festivals at which groups of adolescent boys sing courting songs to groups of girls, who answer in kind.
Today, west China supports an enormous food industry. Yunnan hams and teas, Sichuan pickles, Gueizhou maotai, and Hunan hot bean pastes are world famous. Sichuan-style restaurants are found in major cities around the globe, and classic Sichuan dishes are found in virtually every eclectic Chinese restaurant.
See also Japan ; Korea, Noodle in Asia ; Rice ; Southeast Asia.
Hawkes, David. The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Hosie, Archibald. Szechuan: Its Products, Industries and Resources. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1922.
Huang, H. T. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Part V, Fermentations and Food Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Simoons, Frederick. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1991.
E. N. Anderson