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Fiery food's exhilarating attack on taste buds

SICHUAN cuisine, known often in the West as "Szechuan cuisine," inflicts upon the palate a unique, exciting, and vigorous assault that leaves people astonished and exhilarated.

Renowned for its spicy notes, hot flavors, and richness of tastes, it enjoys a worldwide reputation as one of the eight major schools of China's culinary art. It is said that those who do not experience Sichuan food never fully experience China.

History and geography make the cuisine so different and varied between regions - Sichuan boasts thousands of dishes and "hot and spicy" is only the beginning. Legendary in China for its sophistication and diversity, it is said that "one dish owns one style and a hundred dishes have a hundred tastes."

Chili pepper and prickly ash never fail to accompany Sichuan dishes, making for exciting tastes and "tingly numbing" sensations in the mouth. Garlic, ginger, peanuts, sesame paste and fermented soybean are also used in the cooking process. Wild vegetables and animals are usually incorporated, while frying with or without oil, pickling and braising are common Sichuan techniques.

Food traditions

Though Sichuan food itself has undergone a radical change in style over the past 100 years, its origins were an amalgam of the food traditions of the ancient Shu Kingdom of the fertile Chengdu plain, the central and western Sichuan basin and upper Han River valley of present-day eastern Sichuan Province, and of the food traditions of the Ba Kingdom in the extreme eastern part of present-day Sichuan Province, including Chongqing Municipality.

When Qin State conquered Shu State during the Warring States Period (476-221BC), the local Shu food featured distinct flavors emphasizing the use of Sichuan peppercorn and ginger. The emphasis on spice also derived from the region's warm, humid climate as hot food was useful for dispersing dampness. Sichuan cuisine had established its fame by the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279), when Sichuan style restaurants made their debut in cities as far away as present-day Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. It was further influenced and enhanced with hot and spicy flavors when red chilies were introduced from South America at the end of the 17th century. This ingredient soon became a mainstay of Sichuan cuisine.

In Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when government officials visited Sichuan, their entourage cooks introduced in different cooking styles that gradually merged into the local way.

Sichuan absorbs the strength of northern and southern food to form a fusion between a northern dish with Sichuan style and a southern dish with Sichuan taste.

The region has been a land of plenty since ancient times, thus the cuisine owes part of its substance to the abundance of ingredients, including animals, poultry and fish.

Its cuisine is divided into four main flavors: Chongqing style, Chengdu style, Zigong style and Buddhist vegetarian style. The Chongqing, Chengdu and Zigong styles have a lot in common while the Buddhist vegetarian style distinguishes itself by its lack of meat.

"The characteristics of Sichuan cuisine depend on who cooks it and how but it can be done to suit all palates," said Li Xin, secretary-general of Sichuan Cuisine Association. "It so carefully balances color, smell, flavor, shape and nutrition that its dishes not only look pleasant and appealing, but are also nutritious."

Known for multiple rather than singular flavors, the cuisine is absurdly varied - there are 24 compound flavor categories that characterize it and more than 50 cooking methods, according to Li. Among them, the techniques special to Sichuan cuisine include quick-frying, dry-braising and dry-stewing.

"Sichuan cuisine is so popular because it emphasizes a myriad of tastes, though 'spicy and pungent' is its typical characteristic flavor," Li said.

And there is no Sichuan fare hotter than hotpot, a relatively new addition to its long gastronomic history. Originating in Chongqing Municipality in the 1920s, a Sichuan hotpot is markedly different. With peppercorns in the fluid, it creates sensations both spicy and slightly burning and numbing.

Although many dishes live up to the spicy reputation, often ignored are the large percentage of recipes that use little or no hot spices at all, including famous dishes such as Tea Smoked Duck. Actually, only 30 percent of Sichuan dishes taste spicy, said the secretary-general.

Where to eat Ba Guo Bu Yi

Sichuan food aficionados can visit Chengdu-based chain restaurant Ba Guo Bu Yi to satisfy their cravings for authentic, hot and flavorful Sichun cuisine.

The Dingxi Road restaurant is decked out in Chinese style and built around a central courtyard, where a traditional Sichuan mask-changing show is performed every night at 7:45. It's best to make a reservation as it is always packed with local customers and some foreign guests.

Diners are advised to start with classic cold dishes such as Fuqi Feipian (cold beef, beef lung/tongue/tripe in chili sauce) and Kou Shui Ji (steamed chicken with chili sauce). The chili oil and spicy sauce brings on the heat for these cold cut delights.

The menu is packed with dishes that will scorch the mouth of even the hardiest chili eater. And while recommend dishes such as Bao Cui Chang (quick fried pig intestines), Mapo Doufu (pockmarked grandma's tofu), Chan Zui Wa (sauteed bullfrog in chili sauce) and La Zi Ji (spicy chicken nuggets) are hot, there are others with an even greater, chili-loaded, punch.

But the Sichuan chefs know that not everybody's stomach can sustain the biting heat of their local red delicacies so alternatives have more delicate flavors.

Diners seeking to retain a sense of taste should try Nan Gua Hua Pai (pumpkin spare ribs) and Hai Shen Hui Dou Fu (braised sea cucumber with Japanese tofu). In between drink plenty of beer or coke. Dinner for two with three appetizers, three hot dishes and drinks will be less than 300 yuan.

In the city

Address: 1018 Dingxi Rd,

Rm 301, Block A, 1665 Hongqiao Rd

738 Dongfang Rd

In the Expo park

Address: No. 8, Eight Cuisines Area, B06, B Section, Expo Park


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