Food writer Fuchsia Dunlop on Sichuan's fiery cuisine

The writer and author of The Food of Sichuan explores the unique flavours of this Chinese province and recommends her three favourite restaurants in its capital, Chengdu.

By Fuchsia Dunlop
Published 8 Oct 2020, 08:00 BST
The most famous characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its fieriness, derived from the liberal use of ...

The most famous characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its fieriness, derived from the liberal use of red chillies.

Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

It’s easy to forget China is more of a continent than a country: its vast territory encompasses deserts and rainforests, high mountains and fertile plains, salt lakes and rolling grasslands. The Sichuan region, including the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu, has its own dialect, unique teahouse culture and an outstanding culinary tradition.

The most famous characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its fieriness, derived from the liberal use of red chillies. Dried in the sun, blood-red and lustrous, or pickled bright scarlet in salt and wine, chillies are at the heart of the region’s cooking. They’re used inventively in many local dishes. Sizzled in oil, they give the ‘scorched chilli flavour’ that’s the base of gong bao chicken and innumerable vegetable stir-fries; combined with Sichuan pepper, they’re used in intensely powerful ‘numbing-and-hot’ dishes. And although spice might be the cuisine’s most distinctive taste, the most salient characteristic of Sichuanese cookery is in fact its audacious combinations of different flavours: sweet-and-sour ‘lychee flavour’, delicate ‘fragrant-boozy flavour’ and fresh, light ‘ginger juice flavour’, for example.

Sichuan pepper is one of the most ancient Chinese spices. It has a heady aroma that carries hints of wood and citrus peel, and produces a numbing effect on the mouth. The taste and fragrance are incomparable, and most people succumb quickly to its aromatic charms. One folk explanation for its widespread use in Sichuanese cookery is that its numbing effects allow the consumption of more chillies than would otherwise be humanly possible. An edited extract from The Food of Sichuan, published by Bloomsbury (RRP: £30).

Fuchsia’s top three Chengdu restaurants

The Cherry Garden
A rooftop restaurant with a beautiful garden terrace for al fresco dining when the weather’s fair. Visit for hearty Sichuanese homestyle dishes. 
What to order: Fish in chilli bean sauce, twice-cooked pork and cool pea-starch jelly (liangfen) in a spicy sauce.

Wang’s Special Guokui 
There’s one reason to visit Wang’s, and that’s to taste the guokui, a superlative version of this crisp pinwheel pastry filled with minced meat and a tingle of Sichuan pepper. Bite into the incredibly crisp crust and chewy dough as you stand on the pavement. Expect long queues, but enjoying watching the chefs while you wait.
What to order: Pork or beef guokui. 82 Caoshi Street, Qingyang District.

This tiny restaurant is renowned for its exquisite — and expensive — Sichuanese banquet cooking. Expect only the finest ingredients and wonderful flavours ranging from spicy rabbit to delicate broths.
What to order: Highlights of the tasting menu include sea cucumber in sour-and-hot soup and delicate ‘golden thread’ noodles. T: 00 86 28 6249 1966.

Must-try dish

Hotpot — a steaming cauldron of hot chillies, Sichuan pepper, oil and broth — is a Chongqing speciality. Diners sit around the pot and cook their own meat, offal, seafood or vegetables in the soup.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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