Suggest going out for Szechuan cuisine, and many people immediately envision platters of hot, spicy food - the kind that has you gulping down copious amounts of water all evening in an attempt to soothe your burning taste buds. People are often surprised to discover that at least of one-third of the recipes that make up Szechuan cuisine are not spicy at all. That is not to say that Szechuan's reputation for producing "mouth burners" is undeserved.
But, along with fiery classics such as "Hot and Numbing Fish" and "Kung Pao Chicken," Szechuan is the home of "Tea Smoked Duck" - a fascinating dish made by smoking a duck over tea leaves.
Moreover, the chili peppers that have made Szechuan cooking famous are a relatively recent addition. It was Christopher Columbus who brought chili peppers back with him from his travels (on behalf of the Spanish crown) in what he mistakenly took to be the Orient, and which we now know was somewhere in the Bahamas. By the time the intrepid, Genoa-born Italian explorer set foot in the New World, chili peppers were flourishing throughout South America, the Caribbean, and Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America). Most sources state Columbus named the plant himself, christening it pimentito or "pepper" out of a mistaken belief that he had discovered black pepper.
It is unclear precisely how chili peppers were introduced to Szechuan, a landlocked, mountain-ringed region in western China.
The most accepted view is that Indian missionaries brought chilies with them during their travels along China's famous Silk Route - a series of pathways originally constructed during the Han dynasty for military and strategic purposes, that subsequently gained more importance as a major trade route.
Another theory is that they were brought in by Chinese merchants trading with Portuguese and Spanish sailors at various seaports. In any event, today chili peppers are an indispensable feature of Chinese regional cuisine. Dried peppers are frequently used in Szechuan dishes, while cooks favor fresh peppers in the neighboring province of Hunan.
Tip - Ever hear the expression "Oil and water don't mix"? It's true, which is why drinking water doesn't help combat the effects of spicy foods. Since most spices are oily the water just rolls over the spice. Eat rice instead - it absorbs the hot chili oil. Beer or milk also help.
However, this does not mean that Szechuan cooks had no way of producing heat prior to Columbus' transatlantic voyage. Szechuan pepper is another important ingredient in Szechuan cooking. Also known as pepper flower, Chinese pepper, and fagara, Szechuan pepper is not a pepper at all. Instead, the reddish-brown fruit - one of the ingredients in five spice powder - is a berry that comes from the prickly ash tree. While not as hot as chili pepper, it does have a unique flavor and is famous for its numbing effect on the tongue.
Of course, all of this begs the question: how did the Szechuanese develop their taste for fiery cuisine?
One common explanation is that Szechuan's muggy, humid climate encourages people to eat strongly spiced foods. There's more to it than that, however. Szechuan dishes often contain many flavors, such as sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, and fragrant. Hot foods like red chili stimulate the palate, making it more sensitive to all these flavors. In addition, they cleanse the palate in preparation for the next dish. Still, it's interesting to note that highly seasoned foods are primarily a feature of Szechuan home cooking - peppery hot dishes are never served at formal banquets.
Foods featured in Szechuan cooking
Chili peppers, Szechuan pepper, garlic, salt, and dried and pickled ingredients such as Szechuan preserved vegetable. Beef, lamb, and pork, although the Szechuanese eat less pork than neighboring Hunan, which is famous for its ham.
Cooking methods: Szechuan cooks employ a variety of cooking methods, from stir-frying to roasting and simmering. Twice Cooked Pork, where the pork is first boiled and then stir-fried, is a classic regional dish.
"Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think."
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