Málà – numbing and hot – that’s Sichuan cuisine. The wild Sichuan peppercorn (huājiāo), a little bit pink, a little more purple – really sets Sichuan cuisine apart. Take a bite of one and your mouth tingles as an addictive numbness makes its way to your lips. This is the má. Combine it with the characteristic hot blanket of chili peppers – the là – and you have discovered the magic of Sichuan cuisine.
While Sichuan food is available around the world, Sichuan dishes take on an almost electric quality – in both color and flavor – when served in China. Here’s a sample from our travels.
Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (Kung Pao Chicken)
When you travel to China, memories fade of the goopy generic slop that is often passed off as kung pao in Chinese restaurants throughout Europe and America. The real deal is full of fresh green onions, large red chilies, Sichuan peppers, peanuts and bits of chicken doused in a light sauce.
Where to Find It: In Beijing we tried the kung pao chicken at Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant. It was good, but the real deal was right around the corner at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Guanghua Donglu #11 near Guomao metro station in the Chaoyang area of Beijing. Their versions of Sichuan classics were inexpensive and tasty, and dished out by giggling waitresses.
In Chengdu (Sichuan Province), Grandma Chen’s on Xi Yu Long Jie serves a kung pao plate piled high with chilies, Sichuan peppercorn, fresh green onions and a sprinkling of peanuts.
Ganbian Sijidou (Dry Fry Sichuan Green Beans)
Piles of green beans are dry fried with chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger and other spices. Beans are crispy, smoked and sweet; the combination of spices leaves your mouth wondering where these flavors have been all its life.
Where to find it: At the same hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Beijing with the kung pao chicken (Address: Guanghua Donglu #11 near Guomao metro). Unfortunately, green beans weren’t in season during our visit to Sichuan Province, so opportunities to taste them on their home territory were limited.
Mápó Dòufǔ (Pockmarked Tofu)
The name of this dish finds its roots in the pockmarked face of its creator, Grandma Chen. Why anyone thought this descriptive appetizing for a dish is beyond us. The dish features soft dimpled tofu in a hot sauce of garlic, minced meat (pork or beef) chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns and fresh green onions. Quality varies widely; if it's not good the first time, try it again elsewhere.
Where to find it: Our best plate of the stuff was served at an outpost of the Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant chain (Chengdu) that supposedly started it all with Grandma Chen’s recipe in 1862. Outlets of this restaurant chain seem to be opening and closing faster than guide books can keep up. Ask your hotel or taxi driver for the nearest location. We went to the one on Xi Yu Long Jie.
Xiao Chi (Little Eats):
Sichuan snack food, from barbecued skewers to steamed goodies like transparent dumplings and Zhong’s dumplings.
Check out our piece on Chinese dumplings for more details, including where to find them.
Sichuan Huǒ guō (Sichuan Hot Pot)
Bubbling red broth laden with dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Though Sichuan hot pot hurts so good, it also tastes so good that you might not be able to stop.
Read more about Sichuan hot pot in our article, Hot Pot Fever.