It’s the food

Sichuan peppercorns
Yes, here is my long-awaited food column on Sichuan cuisine. Gourmet Magazine, look out!

It all started with Sichuan pepper. Its smell, I mean; that was one of the first distinctive things I noticed in China. Walking down a street in Chengdu lined with restaurants, the aroma of hot cooking oil and Sichuan pepper assaulted my senses. It’s one of those things in life that’s absolutely unmistakable. Like the otherworldly smell of perfect croissants wafting from a corner bakery in France.

The taste of Sichuan pepper is so distinctive, in fact, that I can hardly bear to use more than a few grains of it in my cooking. My first taste of hot pot (an oily, Sichuan peppery broth in which you cook morsels of food) hit me over the head with a taste that didn’t leave my mouth for 3 days.

…and the packaged variety

As we say in the Midwest, it ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. The effect of Sichuan pepper isn’t hot or spicy so much as it is numbing. The Chinese have a term for this distinctive effect:

má là 麻辣

It means literally “numb” (má) “spicy” (là). The anesthetic effect starts on the tongue, spreads to your lips, and, depending on how messy an eater you are, affects other parts of your face as well.

Chinese cookery, with thousands of years of refinement, files food into a series of tidy taste classifications, like sweet or sour. Sichuan peppers claim a category all their own: mind-numbing.
source: Ron Gluckman,

Sichuan pepper is not actually a pepper, but a berry. It goes by the name of of huajiao, meaning “flower pepper”. The spice is made from the dried outer casings of the berries of the Chinese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum simulans) which is a deciduous, evergreen shrub.

Spiciness is believed to rid the body of internal dampness and overcome the cold according to the traditional Chinese doctrine. Therefore, with the climate of the Sichuan province being wet and damp overall, while it can be cold where it rises into the surrounding mountain ranges, the peppercorn forms an essential part of Sichuan cuisine.

So much for the instructional part of our lesson. Now here’s an example of one of my favorite local dishes, Ma po doufu.

Chinese : 麻婆豆腐 ; pinyin : Mápó dòufu
Literally, “Pockmarked face Grandmother’s Bean Curd”

Ma po doufu is, supposedly, named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing Dynasty restaurateur. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic, oily dish for laborers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city’s markets.

Here’s a recipe. I found several, but this one is good because you can substitute vegetarian ingredients. It uses other special Sichuan ingredients such as fermented black beans.

Mápó dòufu


Firm Tofu – 200 gm
Fried tofu (minced) – about 75 gm (replace with minced beef for the original version)
Chili bean paste – 1.5 tbsp
Peanut oil – 3 tbsp
Fermented black beans – 2 tsp
Whole Sichuan red chilies – 6-10, depending on your chili tolerance
Chicken stock or vegetable stock (unsalted) – 1/2 cup
Sugar – 1 large pinch
Light soy sauce – 1 tsp
Cornflour – 2 tsp mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
Sichuan peppercorns (ground) – 1/4 tsp
Spring onions (scallions) – chopped – 2 tbsp

How to make it

Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat a wok on high heat. When it’s nice and hot, add the oil. Add the minced beef (or minced fried tofu) and stir-fry for about a minute on high heat. The beef should be brown on the outside but still have some cooking left.

With a spatula, move the beef to one side of the wok so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. (If you don’t, you will shortly start coughing till your lungs pop out.)

Now add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. The oil should have a nice smell from all this seasoning.

Add the chicken or vegetable stock and stir it in. Then gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don’t stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.

Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.

Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornflour-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu nicely.

Stop the cooking at this stage, add the spring onions and mix.

Empty the dish into a hot bowl. Scatter with the powdered Sichuan peppercorns and serve.

Thanks to a friend, I’m gradually enlarging my repertoire of Sichuan culinary delights. Here are some photos of some of my favorite dishes.

zhong shui jiao – spicy dumplings

hui guo rou – literally, twice-cooked pork

tang cu li ji – sweet and sour pork

Now you can “join” me and my friend at a recent meal. This is our favorite restaurant, down the street from where I live. A large rooster decorates the inside of the window.

guo ba rou pian – crispy rice pork. The fried rice sizzles when the food and liquid are poured over it.

This was a recent Sunday lunch.

gong bao ji ding – known in the U.S. as “kung pao chicken:” chicken, hot chilis, and peanuts.

a tub of rice and a bowl of pickled green vegetables

tomato and lettuce soup. In China, the soup is eaten at the end of a meal. There is rarely a dessert.

My friend’s photo – the basic utensils for a meal.


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