About Authentic Chinese Food and Cooking
Chinese cooking files food into a series of tidy taste classifications such as sweet or sour. Sichuan cuisine, known more commonly in the West as “Sichuan,” claims a category all their own: mind-numbing.
Sichuan food has always been famous for its well deserved stereotype “ma la” (tongue numbing and spicy）dishes. When a person from Sichuan asks if a person likes spicy food, that person should consider their answer. Natives of China’s spiciest province do not joke when it comes to liberal usage of hot red chili pepper, wild pepper and garlic.
The prevailing Sichuan food consists of popular dishes eaten by common people and characterized by pungent, hot, spicy, and above all, ma (tongue numbing) — a sign of “culinary machismo” flavors. However, these flavors were only introduced in the last 100 years and initially were popular only in the lower strata of society. Hot pepper, an important flavoring in Sichuan cuisine, was introduced into China only 200 to 300 years ago.
During the period of the Three Kingdom (A.D. 220-265), the kingdom of Shu was located in Sichuan. According to historical research, the people in Shu liked sweet food. During the Jin Dynasty (A.D 265-420), they preferred to eat pungent food. However, pungent food at that time referred to food made with ginger, mustard, chives, or onions.
The hot pepper was introduced into China by ancient travelers from Siam (Thailand) and India around the end of 17th century. Once it came to Sichuan, it became a preferred food flavoring. Sichuan has high humidity and many rainy or overcast days. Hot pepper helps reduce internal dampness, so hot pepper was used frequently in dishes and hot dishes became the norm in Sichuan cuisine.
Sichuan cuisine uses marinated or oil fried chilies and Sichuan wild huajiao (pepper). This crunchy little spice is described as “ma” (tongue numbing) in Mandarin — the root of anesthesia — because it effectively numbs your tongue and taste buds. Once a person’s tongue gets used to the spicy fire, there is an extraordinary range of delicate flavors behind the chili barrage.
Although Sichuan cuisine has only a short history, it has affected and replaced many sumptuous dishes. Standards like Ma Po Do Fu (tofu topped with a bit of minced beef, floating in chili bean sauce) and Gong Bao Ji Ding (a spicy chicken dish known even overseas; think Kung Pao Chicken) came from the provincial capital of Chengdu, where chili is as common at mealtime as rice in the rest of China. Chili seasons everything from dumpling sauce to duck marinade.