'The Food of Sichuan': how a British writer brought the flavours of provincial China to the world
The latest version of Fuchsia Dunlop's book has been shortlisted for the prestigious Guild of Food Writers Awards in the UK
In 1994, a young British student arrived in south-west China to begin a year-long postgraduate degree. At the end of her time there, along with her improved Mandarin skills, she brought back memories of the food of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, the fertile, landlocked basin ringed by high mountains in the country’s second-largest province.
Visiting Chengdu for the first time the previous year, Fuchsia Dunlop had been dazzled by the city’s cuisine: street vendors dishing out meat-filled pastries and noodles dressed with complex sauces and flavoursome oils; food markets piled high with verdant produce and an array of aromatic spices, pastes and preserves; restaurants serving meat and fish and greens with a sense of poise and authority derived from a tradition going back centuries.
“China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavour,” is a saying in China.
Here was a great regional cuisine absent from the Cantonese-dominated repertoire of Chinese food available in the West. The sensual feast began right outside the gates of her university and extended through the city, where much of her year was spent sampling the wares of Chengdu’s popular restaurants. When Dunlop completed her degree, she sought to study and recreate in the kitchen the flavours and combinations she had delighted in eating. She enrolled in a three-month cookery class at Chengdu’s Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, and became the first foreigner to be accepted in its ranks.
The Chinese language itself has an extensive vocabulary for textures – the word 'nuo', for instance, refers 'to the soft, spring stickiness of ingredients like glutinous rice'
Out of that encounter would come one of the great cookbooks. Turned down initially by many publishers for being too regional in its focus, the book was published in 2001 with the simple title, Sichuan Cookery. Soon, Dunlop’s book catapulted Sichuanese cuisine into the sights of the entire English-speaking world. Narrated in a language of great ardour and sensuality, and with a captivating density of detail – one of the book’s mini-essays is devoted to “the 23 flavours of Sichuan” – every page revealed the author’s hard-won mastery of her subject.
The book would set Dunlop off on a full-time food-writing career (one that also includes the lovely memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper) focused on the cuisines of China. But her name is always associated most closely with the food of Sichuan. Now, nearly two decades after its original publication, Dunlop has produced a revised and expanded edition of her master book.
While certain controversies surrounding Chinese food and, in particular, produce procured from the country's wet markets are rife amid the coronavirus pandemic, the book celebrates the diversity of a great cuisine. It is composed “in the light of my now-expanded knowledge”, Dunlop says, and because writing a cookbook about a living and changing cuisine is “like pitching a tent on quicksand”. It’s a 500-page hardback with more than 50 new recipes, sumptuous photography by Yuki Sugiura, and a much more authoritative-sounding title: The Food of Sichuan. Last month, the new edition was also shortlisted for the prestigious Guild of Food Writers Awards in the UK.
The cover of The Food of Sichuan is in the colour red for a reason. The most distinctive element of Sichuanese cuisine is its abundance of sun-dried chillies, which come in many sizes and degrees of fieriness, and are used whole, chopped-up, ground, pickled, or as the base of a paste made with fermented broad beans. An even more distinctive element – now readily found in supermarkets around the world – is the rosy pink Sichuan pepper, which actually belongs to a plant in the citrus family. Its punchy flavour carries with it an incredible "kougan" or mouthfeel: a zingy tingliness that lasts for several minutes.
Unlike the chilli, which only arrived in China in the 16th century, most likely in the bags of Portuguese traders, the Sichuan pepper is native to the mountain slopes of the province. “In many Sichuanese households the pepper is roasted and freshly ground almost every day," writes Dunlop. Combined in a dish, the chilli and the pepper make for one of the most assertive notes of Sichuanese cuisine: the style known locally as "mala", or numbing and hot. A good Sichuanese cook earns his or her spurs by learning exactly how long to roast or stir-fry these delicate ingredients to release their delicious flavours and aroma.
Dunlop excels in her ringing descriptions of the flavour palette of Sichuanese chefs – “their ability to combine many different tastes into exquisite compound flavours”. A noteworthy example of this that she explores in great detail is the coming together of ingredients to make a flavour-complex, translated by her as “fish-fragrant”, and described as “a stunning combination of pickled chilli paste, ginger, garlic, spring onions, sugar and vinegar".
The sauce is not actually used to cook fish; rather, the ingredients evoke the memory of fish cookery when applied to meat or vegetables. One example is the glossy violet aubergines “deep-fried to a buttery tenderness” and beautifully set off by their aromatic red base, itself both dense and translucent, in the recipe called “fish-fragrant aubergines”.
But equally, Sichuanese cooking sets great store by simplicity: the isolation or intensification of flavours hidden deep inside food. That is why, in Sichuan, chicken stock is seen as being more complex than chicken meat, “for rich, dense chicken stock is the embodiment of 'xianwei', that elusive, delicious, savoury taste that is in many ways the inspiration for the Chinese culinary arts”. (In English this taste goes by the name borrowed from Japan, umami.)
Many Sichuanese, and indeed Chinese, vegetarian dishes use chicken fat to stir-fry vegetables, so as to add that extra dimension of xian flavour to the natural flavours of the vegetables. One wonderful chicken recipe shows us chicken masquerading as a humble vegetarian dish, expensive breast meat beaten fine, mixed with egg whites, then poached in chicken stock until it settles into a white curd that looks like tofu.
But even vegetarians who resist this blurring of boundaries between meat and veg will find much to work with here. The colossal range of vegetables, tubers, gourds, greens, mushrooms, flowers, fungi and shoots available in Sichuan have nourished a cuisine acutely alive to the expressive possibilities of vegetables. These range from simple palate-cleansing soups that are nothing more than cubes of pumpkin or shreds of spinach simmered in water to pungent, crunchy pickles that have been steeped in brine, spices and a splash of liquor.
The Sichuanese take particular care to waste as little as possible and, as a result, in the case of meat, everything from the nose to tail is eaten. “Certain types of texture,” writes Dunlop, “are particularly enjoyed in Sichuan: the crisp, rubbery bite of tripe [...], the silky tenderness of the flesh pocketed in a fish’s cheek.” The Chinese language itself has an extensive vocabulary for textures – the word "nuo", for instance, refers “to the soft, spring stickiness of ingredients like glutinous rice” – showing an ability to appreciate food for its mouthfeel alone.
Ever-attentive and appreciative, Dunlop runs with her subject for hundreds of pages, combining recipes with little essays and catalogues, personal memories of chefs and eating houses, nuggets of history, poetry and folklore. One of the writers she quotes is the eighth-century poet Li Bai, who, worn out by the labours of reaching Chengdu on a road over the high mountains, writes: “It is easier to climb to Heaven / Than to take the Sichuan road.”
Thanks to Dunlop, the road to Sichuan is easy and inviting with this new edition of her magnum opus.
How to make Fish-fragrant Aubergines
yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子
Dunlop walks us through how to make the dish:
"The following recipe is a local classic, and one of my all-time favourite dishes of any cuisine. More than any other dish, for me it sums up the luxuriant pleasures of Sichuanese food: thewarm colours and tastes, the subtlety of complex flavours. Like other fish-fragrant dishes, it is made with the seasonings of traditional fish cookery: pickled chillies, garlic, ginger and spring onions. But unlike the more illustrious fish-fragrant pork slivers, it derives its colour not from pickled chillies alone, but from pickled chillies combined with broad beans in chilli bean paste. The sauce is sweet, sour and spicy, with a reddish hue and a visible scattering of chopped ginger, garlic and spring onion.
The dish is equally delicious hot or cold. I usually serve it with a meat or tofu dish and a stir-fried green vegetable, but it makes a fine lunch simply eaten with brown rice and a salad. The aubergines, deep-fried to a buttery tenderness, are delectable. I have eaten this dish in restaurants all over Sichuan, and recorded numerous different versions of the recipe. The following one will, I hope, make you sigh with delight.
If you want to scale up this recipe for a party, rinse and dry the salted aubergines, toss in a little cooking oil and then roast for 15–20 minutes in a 220°C oven until golden. Make the sauce, but don’t thicken it with starch; instead, pour it over the roasted aubergines and set aside to allow the flavours to mingle. Serve at room temperature."
Cooking oil, for deep-frying
1½ tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste
1½ tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
150ml hot stock or water
4 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp light soy sauce
¾ tsp potato starch, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
1 tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
6 tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens
1. Cut the aubergines into batons about 2cm thick and 7cm long. Sprinkle with salt, mix well and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
2. Rinse the aubergines, drain well and pat dry with kitchen paper. Heat the deep-frying oil to around 200°C (hot enough to sizzle vigorously around a test piece of aubergine). Add the aubergines, in two or three batches, and deep-fry for about 3 minutes, until tender and a little golden. Drain well on kitchen paper and set aside.
3. Carefully pour off all but 3 tbsp oil from the wok and return to a medium flame. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant: take care not to burn the paste (move the wok away from the burner if you think it might be overheating). Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until they smell delicious.
4. Tip in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Bring to the boil, then add the aubergines, nudging them gently into the sauce so the pieces do not break apart. Simmer for a minute or so to allow the aubergines to absorb the flavours.
5. Give the potato starch mixture a stir and add it gradually, in about three stages, adding just enough to thicken the sauce to a luxurious gravy (you probably won’t need it all). Tip in the vinegar and all but 1 tbsp of the spring onion greens, then stir for a few seconds to fuse the flavours.
6. Turn out on to a serving dish, scatter over the remaining spring onion greens and serve.
Updated: June 2, 2020 06:57 PM