What you didn’t know about Sichuan food

Most restaurants that serve ‘Chinese’ food around India will have some ‘Schezwan’ items on the menu. Non-vegetarian or vegetarian, the dish is identified by its oily, spicy nature. But Fuchsia Dunlop’s book The Food of Sichuan tells you that, while the use of red chillies and Sichuan pepper does increase the heat quotient, the food is “both sophisticated and amazingly diverse”.

Her introduction to this regional cuisine came when two friends in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, took her out to lunch at a small restaurant in the city. “It was the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted,” she recalls. “The dishes included stir-fried pig’s kidneys, fish-fragrant aubergines and a fish braised in chilli bean sauce. That meal was one of the main reasons I decided I wanted to return to live in Chengdu. All the snack shops around the university served inexpensive food with spectacular flavours: fried guokui pastries, dan dan noodles and spicy wontons… It was addictive.”

Fuchsia Dunlop

In her introduction to the revised edition of her 2001 classic (Sichuan Cookery), Fuchsia talks about living in Chengdu in the 1990s and studying at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine (she was the first Westerner to study here). For this version, she “retested every single recipe and made many alterations to make them (I hope!) even better. I also wanted to add recipes that reflected the regional diversity of Sichuan itself, so I travelled around and ended up including 70 new recipes, including specialities from places like Leshan and Zigong.”

She mentions the changing culinary landscape and how dishes she loved in the 1990s have faded away. “It’s more difficult to find the simple, everyday folk cooking that I used to adore, including duck braised with konnyaku tofu and really good versions of the classic fish-fragrant pork slivers. In recent years, there’s been a craze for new, imported ingredients such as okra and ice plant.” But luckily, “local heroes are doing their utmost to honour and preserve their gastronomic heritage for another generation.”

Fuchsia’s five favourites

  • Cuisines: Japanese, Thai, Turkish
  • Kitchen implements: Chinese cleaver, Pressure cooker, Wok
  • Ingredients: Sichuan chilli bean paste, Sichuan pepper, Fermented tofu in chilli oil, Dried shrimps, Aubergines
  • Markets: Local markets in Chengdu, Tor Kor market in Bangkok, Local markets in Provence, France
  • Chefs: Chef Yu Bo from Chengdu, chef Isaac McHale of the Clove Club in London, chef James Lowe of Lyle’s in London, chef Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco

This is not a book for someone looking for a quick fix or easy recipe, though some are simple to make. The first 60 pages introduce the reader to the cuisine, the kitchen, the larder and the table. The recipes are divided into 14 sections and each recipe has a note attached, some long and comprehensive. Fuchsia also dives into the MSG controversy. “I think many westerners have a paranoia about MSG that is unjustified,” she muses. “There is no scientific evidence that it is harmful, and the compound appears naturally in ingredients like parmesan cheese. Many excellent Chinese chefs use MSG to cook delicious food.” Having said that, she adds that she doesn’t use it. “I don’t think it’s necessary if you use good ingredients. I also think constantly eating food heavily seasoned with MSG can blunt the palate and make it harder to appreciate delicate tastes.”

Given that China is much like India in its regional food variations, I ask if she has a favourite. “Sichuanese,” comes the answer, “One of my favourite dishes of all time (and the most popular recipe in my book) is fish-fragrant aubergines.”

What you didn’t know about Sichuan food

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