Of the eight major schools of China's culinary art, Sichuan cuisine is
perhaps the most popular. Originating in Sichuan Province of western China,
Sichuan cuisine, known as Chuan Cai in 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
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
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 (or Mapo Doufu in 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".