03 March 2014

Sichuan's Many Flavors

Sichuan's Many Flavors

The food of one of Chinese largest provinces is the home of the most savory and spicy food found in China. However, there is more than just piquancy to their culinary, more than what is called ma, a little word that means the hot Sichuan taste. There are many distinctive flavors and a fascinating variety of dishes; they have locals bragging that their cuisine includes more than five thousand different dishes and more subtle culinary techniques than anywhere else in China. Many outsiders agree with them.

The word Sichuan means our rivers? and there are four main rivers in ths land-locked province. It and the area around it has always been known for strong flavorings, distinctive tastes, hot spices, and salty and sour tastes. One or more of them are found in almost, but not all of the dishes of this province. They are all dishes that go well with rice, the main grain in the region. And, they are all foods that are adored.

Know since Western Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 24 CE), this province has an even longer history. It really began in the Ba and Shu Kingdoms, but it was not considered Sichuan then, but rather two very separate states. The current capital, Chengdu, was known as Yi Chou and it had a reputation for fine brocade, well-tooled copper, superbly woven silk, fantastic farming, terrific tea, and huge tea plantations. It was also known for its wise rulers who sent some of the best and brightest students to be educated in Chinese capital city of Chang-An, a city now called Xian. When they returned to their home province, they were assigned to educate the people of the city and then those of the entire province. That is, no doubt, the reason this region produced so many scholars, poets, essayists, and other men of learning.

The people were very proud of two of their very famous poets, and they still are. These men were Lee Bai--the Immortal, and Du Fu--the Sage. They were proud of lots of others, too, and one was a famous historian, Chang Qu. He, as early as the fifth century was remarking about local interest in unusual flavors and dishes. A century later, the cuisine he touted really blossomed.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), foods from this region were known all over China and the provincial capital was considered one of, if not the richest city in China. The large fertile plains that surrounded it were agriculturally rich and realistically protected by high mountain ranges.

Lack of access to the sea did not hinder this region because the entire inland area was home to tea, salt mines, and many herbs. It was here, during the Tang and Sung Dynasties, that local people developed the habit of drinking tea. After they did, this fashion spread to other places in China. Documents indicate that the tea drinking habit really took hold some time before the Han Dynasty, and in what is now the Sichuan province, but it did not become commonplace until Tang and Song times. Wine was popular, too, and there were then as now, many different kinds of teas and wines.

Many tea pavilions can still be found in this area of China. They attest to the popularity of this beverage here and they can be found elsewhere in the country as can tea houses where fashionable folk went to drink both of these beverages. There is still one in the People's Park and it should be described as huge. There are others on artificial lakes or in bamboo groves. Some are high in the mountains and some in or near the more than seventy temples and monasteries scattered about. People centuries ago made them popular, and they still flock to them and enjoy these beverages there. Both tea and wines were consumed with two hands holding covered bowls. For teas, it was customary to tip the covers ever so slightly to allow the beverage to come through and be sipped, the cover containing the leaves and preventing them for entering the mouth. While drinking, it was customary to chat and contemplate the fine natural surroundings. There were periods when teas were more popular, a few when wines were the more important social beverage. Both were consumed in similar type places, that is either in tea houses or wine houses.

This huge province of Sichuan not only has teas and other drinks, they have varied topographies and varied climates that support many other consumables. The Mingtou, and Chialing rivers flow into the Yangzi River along the southern and western edges of the province, and the eastern lowlands are exceptionally fertile. There they grow rice, corn, sweet potatoes, wheat, rape, sugar cane, peanuts, and bamboo. There are also groves of orange, tangerine, pear, star fruit, and lychee trees, and plantations of bananas and teas. Some of these items grow on the hillsides in and around the plethora of different medicinal herbs that are gathered and incorporated into many of the dishes of Sichuan.

The province itself sits north of and touching that of the Yunnan province. Yunnan is home to many ethnic minority nationalities and many Han peoples. The same is true in this neighboring province of Sichuan were the largest ethnic group are the Yi. In addition, there are many Tibetans, Miao (called Hmong in some countries--the United States included), Hui, and Qiang populations. They and the Han majority population live in the large cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Dukou, Zizong, and Yilsin.

Besides many tastes, bold flavors, and many kinds of people, Sichuan is a land of other plenties. It has fine agricultural resources; some areas harvesting crops four times a year. There are other fine resources, one of which is Wu Liang Ye, its famous liquor. This delicious strong distilled beverage is made from many things including five grains. Popular, too, is Luzhou Tequ liquor, an older whiter spirit.

Highly valued foods make Sichuan one of the major cuisines in the south. Recognition is not new, it was popular two thousand years ago and is still highly valued. It is popular and of value not only in the province but also all over China. Perhaps the best known dish is Mapo Doufu. It gained in popularity when a pock-marked woman who lived near the Wanfu Bridge opened and ran a restaurant there, circa the 19th century. She served many kinds of bean curd dishes but perhaps the one most liked whose fame spread to the rest of China, got the name of Pock-faced Lady抯 Doufu, better known by its Chinese name of Mapo Doufu.

Other well-known foods from other kitchens are not attributed to a single source or person. They include Hot and Sour Soup, Dan Dan Noodles, Dry-fried String beans, Tea-smoked Duck, Kung Bao Chicken, and Beef with Tangerine Peel. These and others are flavored with dried numbing flowers, native to China, that are known by a slew of names including: hua jiao, Sichuan pepper, prickly ash, brown peppercorns, flower pepper, and fagara. Botanically, they are the fruit of many plants in the Zanthoxylum family. The one known as Z. simulans is the one most often called Sichuan pepper. It is indigenous to this region and is actually Zanthoxylum rhetsa and often called 'Indian pepper.' Besides this unique and very old food flavoring, this region is known for its newer chili peppers and peanuts. They come in dishes loaded with more ancient foods such as garlic, tangerine peel, and a host of preserved soybean sauces.

Some books tout eight main cooking styles in Sichuan. They mean foods prepared as dry-cooked, sour, spicy, spiced mixed with garlic sauce, dry-fried, strange-flavor, peppery, and/or chili. Fuschia Dunlop抯 book titled Sichuan Cookery, published in London in 2001, lists twenty-tree complex flavors including: home-style, fish fragrant, strange, hot and numbing, red oil, garlic paste, scorched chili, tangerine peel, Sichuan pepper, Sichuan pepper and salt, sour and hot, fragrant fermented sauce, five-spice, sweet fragrant, fragrant wine, smoked, salt-savory, lychee, sweet and sour, ginger juice, sesame paste, mustard, and salt-sweet. This book is now called Land of Plenty and is reviewed in this issue on page 28.

Ms. Dunlop speaks of fifty-six different cooking methods she found in the Sichuan Culinary Encyclopedia published in Chinese by the Chongquian Publishing House in 1998. There are twenty-one variations of frying, twenty-three of boiling or braising, four variations of steaming, four that are roasting variations, also sugary paste, tossing raw foods in sauce, pickling, and jellying, and freezing.

The province is known for making candy figurines out of melted yellow rock sugar that is cooled somewhat and shaped into dragons, phoenixes, monkeys, and everything else imaginable. Those that make them like to be challenged by children purchasing them. They can suggest something or the kids can, and then these sugar artists go about pleasing the little ones. Some have a wheel they tell the child to spin, and what design it lands on, they make for them. Others tell the small fry that if they can not make the requested figurine, they can have the candy for nothing.

There is a folk tale about the origin of these candy figures. They are said to have originated in the Tang Dynasty, made by a scholar unable to pass the imperial examinations. He was said to be destitute until he found some melted sugar and used related academic talents and knowledge of calligraphy and ancient stories to gain economic success. Children and adults order or take a gamble on which figure those that follow in his footsteps will get.

Sichuan dishes can bear simple names that do not necessarily identify them with the region. But the dish itself or its recipe certainly will. One such is Roast Duck that comes with a stuffing of local tastes. It is not served with pancakes and hoisin sauce as is Peking Duck, but rather with a rich aromatic stock made from pork bones and the juices from the roasted duck. The stuffing gets its flavor from star anise, cassia bark, fennel seeds, and cloves. Some chefs put dried ginger pieces into a stuffing of preserved vegetables, and add lots of fresh ginger, scallions, fermented black beans, rock sugar, and Sichuan-style chili paste.

Also popular for children and adults are dishes double-cooked such as Twice-cooked Pork, Dan Dan Noodles, Strange-flavor Chicken, Chicken with Peanuts, and more. Check out the Dunlop book by either name, the first was written for its British audience, the newer revised one called Land of Plenty, for an American one. Ms. Dunlop, the first Caucasian to do so, studied in a culinary school in Chengdu, the capital, so her range of dishes and detail learned there is worth the read. In the meantime, try the recipes that follow this article, they are from the kitchens of others who studied in other parts of China, and with a master from Sichuan.

And do go and taste foods from this region in the growing number of very good Sichuan restaurants outside of China. Chefs have left Chengdu and other cities in this province knowing that westerners and Chinese want to taste their fine cooking. They left their beloved panda bears and ventured elsewhere to cook and teach about real Sichuan food.

People, when they think of the foods of this province think hot, sour, sweet, and salty, and with fish or strange taste, but these flavors are only a couple of hundred years old. Some newer tastes are getting stronger, and there is more incorporation of fish and seafood dishes into this cuisine.

In New York City, it is possible to try these newer tastes at places such as Grand Sichuan Eastern; 1049 Second Avenue; phone: (212) 355-5855); it is between 55th and 56th streets. When doing so, go to the end of the menu and read the detailed background and explanations about the dishes. At this particular eatery, taste some of the fundamental changes taking place in the foods of this province; some are as new as the last dozen years, others in existence just five or six years. At this one eatery, they are called New-style Sichuan food and many of them use pickled spicy peppers or sour cabbages, among other things.

At a pair of popular older sister eateries called Grand Sichuan International there are the expected items and many of the newer type of Sichuan dishes. Therefore, every Sichuan restaurant can indeed be very different. Twenty-five blocks apart are two others in this group. They are: Grand Sichuan Internationals; 745 Ninth Avenue; phone: (212) 582-2288 between 50th and 51st Streets and the other is: 229 Ninth Avenue; phone: (212) 620-5200 on the corner of 24th Street. They serve some of the usual expected Sichuan foods and they also serve Prodigal Daughter or Prodigal Princess Dishes. These foods are take-offs from a Chinese TV series that was popular in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan a couple of years ago. These TV programs told tales and showed foods from a royal family of two to three hundred years ago. These restaurants and perhaps others in this and other cities and towns recreate that type of Sichuan cuisine.

Sichuan Dynasty; 135-32 40th Road in Flushing Queens; phone: (718) /961-7500 serves some of these dishes and the more well-known-to-westerners Sichuan dishes, too. Their walls are beautifully hand-painted to show how the affluent lounged and enjoyed delicious Sichuan food. A literal couple of blocks away, also in Flushing, is a place called Spicy and Tasty; 39-07 Prince Street; phone: 718/359-1601. Here, they serve typical and unusual Sichuan dishes, many exactly that, spicy and tasty. Some taste like those the above-mentioned royal family probably ate, other are even more imaginative.

All of these eateries serve very good Sichuan foods, new and old. What is fun is to mix the ordinary and the newer tastes. The foods of this province are rapidly changing; they are getting more sophisticated while they mix the various taste perceptions. Be sure to speak to the owners or managers of your favorite Sichuan restaurant to discover which type of Sichuan food they serve. And, if you get to New York City, try the above ones and see and savor these differences. In future issues, we plan to provide more about them and share some of the newer recipes.

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