Black Chicken Pepper
To understand the lavishness of Sichuan food, you first have to understand Sichuan’s geography.
About three-fourths of the province is mountains, and the mountains that divide the lower elevations to the
east and the Tibetan plateau to the west hold the richest temperate ecological habitats on earth. It’s that
abundance of species that has bequeathed Sichuan’s food with copious variety. After one year living in
Sichuan, I reckon that Sichuan’s cuisine makes use of more ingredients than any other cuisine in the world; I
also thing that the profusion of tastes and textures is the most extensive in the world.
Generally speaking, Sichuan dishes are also oily and spicy. Sometimes sauces are submerged in
oil, and the reason for that is a history of poverty. According to local wisdom, the deprived locals couldn’t
afford meats and hence oil became a substitute for meats – that way, the oil gave vegetable dishes a rich
texture and consistency, making up for absence of meat. This then led to another development: the imbibing of
tea. Many locals carry a tea thermos everywhere they go, taking gulps every few minutes, apparently out of
necessity – the tea is supposed to neutralize the oily density of the food. (Now people can afford meats, and
this, coupled with increasing health consciousness, is leading people to use less oil – although this is
relative, as people who tell you they have used little oil in a dish would still have used half a
Yet the first thing that strikes foreigners is the chilli. Many dishes comes heaped with dried
chilli pods and a handful of Sichuan peppercorns (the pepper is actually the dried flower of an endemic tree,
and it has a peppery, dry, numbing piquancy). Foreigners are bewildered fumble and bluster at the prospect of
a burning mouth, but the panic is needless: the chilli and pepper is only added to impart flavor and it’s not
supposed to be eaten.
Hotpots are a craze in Sichuan; when people eat out, most times they feast on a hotpot. The
classical hotpot has an oily broth: the stock is made from water, oil from beef fat, dried chilli, Sichuan
peppers, fennel seeds, lotus seeds, stare anise, and other herbs that are endemic to Sichuan. Vegetables and
meats are then cooked in the bubbling pot to one’s liking, then dipped in a bowl of sesame oil, chopped
shallots, and chopped garlic before being transferred to mouth.
There are other hotpot incarnations such as the duck hotpot. It’s the same principle, except
that the stock is flavored by duck; then, the pot with the stock and a juvenile duck for each diner arrives
at the table, and the diners order side-dishes of vegetables to cook in the soup to their liking. The
difference with this hotpot is that the soup is slurped in. Other variations to this hotpot make use of black
chicken – literally, the chicken’s skin is black.
Yet my favorite is the mushroom hotpot. Sichuan’s mushrooms are the best in the world, and more
than a dozen endemic mushrooms are used in the cooking. In the mushroom hotpot, the broth is made from
chicken stock and lots of mushrooms – the taste is distinctive, earthy, and astringent – and the other
vegetables or meats that diners then cook in the hotpot adds more nuances to the taste.
Sauces – mostly stir-fried meats or vegetables or mushrooms, or different combinations of things
– are flavored with the distinctive ingredients of Sichuan: peppercorns, dried chilli pods, chilli oil,
garlic, ginger, and a variety of bean pastes as well as chilli pastes. These sauces are endlessly inventive;
the ones I like best feature mushrooms and bamboo shoots (the mountains are also renowned for their variety
of bamboo species, and the bamboo is among the tastiest in the world). Even basic ingredients like cucumber
are cooked in several different ways.
Salted vegetables also feature ubiquitously in the cuisine. All types of vegetables – as well as
eggs, particularly duck eggs – are pickled in salted water and then put into various dishes.
Then there are the specialty traditional dishes. These include mapo doufu – made by
stir-frying cubes of tofu, pork mince, garlic, ginger, black bean paste, chilli flakes, chicken stock,
cornflour, and then ground Sichuan pepper sprinkled on top. Another is called fen zhen roe; this is
crushed rice mixed with shards of beef and garlic and spices, then shaped in a heap and steamed. The meaning
of oiliness can be explored in several dishes, including the traditional fish dish: delicate freshwater fish
is cooked in a broth of oil, Sichuan pepper and dried peppercorns (you only eat the fish meat).
Cold Dishes and Meats
Pre-prepared chilli oil goes into many cold dishes. Classical chilli oil is made by heating oil
until it smokes, and then pouring it over dried crushed chilli and sesame seeds. It is then used in cold meat
dishes, using beef or chicken or duck: the meat is boiled, shredded, and then tossed in chilli oil and a
drizzle of soy sauce and served cold. The same dish can be made from cucumber, or other variations –
restaurants are always playing with different combinations. Another form of cold dish is the spicy salad: the
meat – sometimes rabbit meat – is boiled, then shredded and tossed in chopped garlic, fresh chilli, fennel
leaves, coriander leaves, roasted peanuts, and chilli oil. This salad is sometimes made with chunky
rectangles of flabby substance made from rice.
Smoked, half-dried meats are also popular, especially tea-smoked duck or half-dried beef or yak.
These are sometimes eaten by themselves, or served alongside a bowl of dried crushed chilli and a sprinkle of
ground Sichuan pepper. Pickled meats, such as sausages and strips of pork meat, are made in winters: the
meats are infused with salt, anise, fennel, cinnamon, pepper, and other herbs, then hung outdoors in the dry
and cold climate. These are then used throughout the year in many different dishes; chunks of sausage are
even sometimes cooked with steam rice, thus giving the rice the flavor of the sausage.
Soups and Noodles
Soup stock is mostly flavored by pork bones and spices, and then an endless combination of fresh
ingredients added to make different soups. Another form is the noodle soup – Sichuan people rarely eat dry,
or fried, noodles – and noodle soups also feature a variety of ingredients. Among the common ingredients are
salted vegetables, shards of meat and chilli oil. Yet noodle soups are also made from leftover sauces:
noodles are cooked in water plus the sauce leftover after dinner, which would be concentrated and tangy. The
noodles themselves come in many shapes, ranging from string-thin rice noodles to thick noodles made from the
tuber of the lotus plant.
When people meet socially late in the evenings, they sometimes go to drink beer and eat beer
food. The food is served in large platters for the group to pick out from, and the sauce is always made in
the same way more or less; it’s only the main ingredients that vary. One of the most popular dishes is
tudou sai paigou: it has spare ribs and potatoes that are then cooked with skinned garlic, dried
chilli pods, Sichuan peppercorns, chopped green peppers, and chopped shallots in water and chilli oil. In
other variations, the spare ribs and potatoes can be substituted by duck, chicken, goose, snails, rabbit,
baby eels, freshwater crabs, and even vegetables such as cucumber or the stalk and root of local
People in Sichuan consider lean meat to be bland, and it’s the other parts of the animal that
they consider to be more delectable. These include pig ears, brains, hooves, hearts, gizzards, intestines,
livers, fish heads, pork fat, chicken or duck feet – these are among the foodstuffs that are considered
delicacies. It’s hard for foreigners to overcome an initial aversion and take to these foods. But some of
these foods are excellent: duck tongues are soft and delicate, and duck brains that are smoked and salted are
as textured and delicious as the French foie gras. These delicacies, above all, extend the textures of
tastes of Sichuan food – they give the cuisine another dimension that’s not found in many
© Victor Paul Borg. This article was originally published in Transitions Abroad.