As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, I am lucky to be part of a Chinese family through marriage and have been able to taste authentic home cooked Chinese food on a regular basis. They are from Chengdu, home of the pandas and kung pao chicken the ubiquitous dish of the Sichuan province. Actually, Sichuan cuisine has three primary dishes that are well known throughout the world, in addition to kung pao chicken, ma po dofu and Sichuan hot pot are equally as prevalent.
The basic ingredients to any good Sichuan dish (especially Kung Pao Chicken) go like this: salt, Chinese black vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, dry Chinese chili peppers and starch. Those are the basic ingredients used in many dishes in Sichuan and provide the spicy and numbing flavor that traditional Sichuan cuisine is known for. The secret to really getting the Sichuan flavor incorporated into your dish is to first heat oil in the pan just until it hits its smoke point. Then you add in the garlic, ginger and other dry seasonings on hand (in this case the peppercorns and chili peppers). Then incorporate the raw ingredients after the oil has become fragrant. About halfway through the cooking process you add the soy sauce (just a tad) and vinegar to adjust the flavor and change the color of the dish. Finally you turn the heat down low, add salt and sugar to taste.
The addition of starch to the dish can be done in two ways. First, you can add it to the dish at the end if you find the amount of liquid in the dish to be too abundant, and secondly you can rub it into the raw meat before cooking to tenderize the meat. The actual science behind why rubbing starch into raw meats makes them more tender is still beyond my grasp. But it works. Another common ingredient is dou ban jiang (bean paste), but it really only should be used if it is a specific kind from Pi Xian, a city that specializes in producing dou ban for the Sichuan province. You will see many varieties of dou ban in Asian markets and grocery stores, but if it is not from Sichuan, you’re better off just sticking with the above listed ingredients.
Sichuan numbing pepper corns can be a challenge to find, but nearly all local Asian markets will carry this spice as more and more native Sichuan immigrants have migrated all over the United States. The town where I’m from, Reno, now has it’s first authentic Sichuan restaurant that incorporates all these spices into their dishes. If you have a hard time finding the Sichuan peppercorns, a viable substitute is Japanese Sancho pepper, which is a similar spice and usually sold in bottled powder form.
If you can get a hold of all those ingredients and cook your dishes up in that order, you can really encapsulate the true Sichuan flavor into your dishes if you’re trying to learn some new home cooking recipes. It doesn’t really matter what meats or vegetables you incorporate, just be creative with it and enjoy!