Guy Diamond, Food Editor, Time Out Sichuan food is one of the great unknown cuisines of the world, but legendary in China for its dazzling variety and richness. From spicy ‘Zhong’ Dumplings and Sichuanese hotpot to Twice-cooked Pork and the intriguingly named Man and Wife Meat Slices, Fuschia Dunlop takes us on a culinary journey in a penguin.co.uk/Food & Drink exclusive…
What characterises Sichuan cooking?
Sichuan cuisine ranges from sweet snacks to banquet cooking; its ingredients from seasonal vegetables to rare delicacies. The most famous characteristic of Sichuanese cookery is its spiciness. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the damp, muggy Sichuanese climate is very unhealthy, and local people claim they have to eat plenty of chillies and ginger to maintain their bodily equilibrium.
So you find a great many fiery dishes, lavishly flavoured with dried and pickled chillies, as well as the other celebrated local spice, Sichuan pepper. But spicy dishes are only part of the picture, and Sichuanese chefs are actually legendary for their ability to create delightful 'fu he wei' - complex flavours - which combine all kinds of different tastes. So probably the most notable characteristic of Sichuanese cooking is the quite dazzling variety of flavours.
Can you tell us a little bit about the part of the world where it comes from and how this is reflected in the dishes?
The Sichuan basin, which is more-or-less ringed by mountains, is known in China as 'the land of plenty' (tian fu zhi guo) because of its abundant agricultural produce. The soil is intensely fertile, and springs forth all kinds of fruits and vegetables, all year round. There are also many varieties of freshwater fish, and all kinds of game and wild plants from the grasslands and mountains.
Local specialities include bamboo shoots, bamboo pith fungus, loquats, chillies, ginger and of course Sichuan pepper. This amazing availability of ingredients is one of the reasons for the delightful diversity of the local diet. Culturally, Sichuan has always had a strong regional identity. Sichuanese people have a reputation for being a bit spicy (local women are known as 'spice girls' - la mei zi), and for knowing how to enjoy the pleasures of life, especially in the provincial capital Chengdu. And the region has its own dialect and operatic style as well as a very distinctive local cuisine. It's definitely a place with a southern character, and a passionate, earthy approach to food.
How did you develop an interest in this particular kind of cooking?
I have loved cooking and eating for as long as I can remember, and so it seems in retrospect pretty inevitable that I would develop an interest in Sichuanese cooking when I came to live here! I actually chose to study in Sichuan partly because I knew the food would be incredible (although I didn't tell the British Council this when I applied for the scholarship that brought me here!). And it has never disappointed me. When I initially arrived in Chengdu I was trying to study something else, but I was just irresistibly drawn into the markets and kitchens and the food interest gradually took over. It's just endlessly, endlessly fascinating!
Do you need to be an accomplished cook to attempt these kinds of dishes?
I have deliberately started the book with a chapter on Sichuanese cold dishes, most of which are fantastically delicious and very easy to make. In fact, some of them require no more than the skills needed to make a salad dressing. I hope that the book will give people all kinds of ideas about combinations of flavours, and ways of cooking, which will inspire them to experiment themselves.
A few of the recipes in the book require unusual materials or complex cooking methods; most do not. All of them have been tested in my London kitchen, on an ordinary gas cooker, with ingredients which are locally available. I have tried to offer a glimpse of the diversity and sophistication of Sichuanese cuisine, but the emphasis of this collection of recipes is firmly on the folk cooking of the region, on the wonderful dishes which my Sichuanese friends make at home or in their restaurants, and which I lived on, with great delight, for more than two years of my life.
What are the essential ingredients of a Sichuan larder?
You can find a detailed list of these in the introduction to my book. The most important ingredients are probably the flavourings: the dried chillies and Sichuan pepper; the pickled chilli and broad bean paste; and the preserved vegetables; as well as the Chinese staples like ginger, garlic, spring onions, soy sauce and vinegar. Sichuanese food purists would add Sichuanese well salt to the list as well!