If You Can Stand the Heat, Get in the Kitchen: Theory and Practice of Szechuan Cuisine

 

Generally, I only inflict my culinary exploits on the PiT. (Before you start to feel too bad for them, you can rest assured that they are not passive victims in this endeavour). As with so much else in my life, my gastronomic tastes tend to veer a little bit outside of the mainstream, especially for a college student that lives alone. Mostly traditional Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese food, as well as some Middle Eastern, and not quite any burgers, spaghetti, and donuts. My parents don’t exactly love it when I come home, and the next day they have a fridge fully stocked with tofu, preserved bamboo shoots, century eggs, kimchi, and the like. (Mom draws the line at congealed blood and chicken feet). With England in lockdown yet again, I’ve had more time than normal to cook for myself, and, like an old and familiar friend, I often gravitate towards Szechuanese and Xi’an food. 

Chinese food encompasses a vast array of regional dishes, ingredients, and methods, but there are, in modern times, the 八大菜系: Eight Great Cuisines of China. Szechuan cuisine is one and is renowned in the country and around the world for its characteristic pungency and spiciness. Commonly available ingredients, like garlic, ginger, sesame paste, and green onion, play a role in this, but so do two ingredients grown almost exclusively in the region. The Szechuan peppercorn, which creates a unique kind of numbing and tongue-tingling spice when consumed, and the heaven facing pepper, oftentimes too hot to be consumed raw but a staple in dried and cooked form. If you’ve ever had Szechuan food, you’ll be familiar with that pepper, and also with the chili oil that is almost ubiquitous in it. 

Szechuan food has these characteristics for more reasons than the geography and native flora and fauna. One of the concerns of traditional Chinese medicine is ‘internal dampness’ caused by humidity, which can lead to digestive issues, lethargy, and rheumatism. Given the province’s dreary, rain, and cloud-filled climate, it’s natural that its people would be concerned with such issues affecting them. A solution for these issues is spicy, hot food, and since the region is so good at growing peppers and peppercorns, they became more than just a convenient ingredient in the local cuisine. They are a tonic against all of the natural ills which might inflict inhabitants. 

Monday is generally my shopping day, and since I was low on chili reserves, and my favored Chinese market has a huge chili and spice section with an abundance of high-quality products at relatively cheap prices, I may have gone overboard. Thus, a not entirely unique fusion dish was born. 

Chinese cuisine, such as you can really call it that, has many different flavor profiles based on ingredients and region. Szechuan’s most famous is 麻辣 (mala), a combination of chili peppers and the aforementioned peppercorn, with its famous numbing property. 麵 (biang biang mian) are a favorite staple of Xi’an cuisine; wide, hand-stretched and beaten noodles which are seasoned by topping the cooked mian with a spice/herb mix (chili flakes, garlic, etc), coating the bottom of the bowl in soy sauce and black vinegar, and pouring smoking hot oil over top. It creates a rich, slightly smoky, tingly, spicy, and tangy sauce. Szechuan peppercorn is often added to spice mixture because of Shaanxi’s (Xi’an’s province) proximity to Szechuan. (Biang is an infamous character in Chinese, the most complex in the language at 57 strokes; it’s actually an onomatopoeia, representing the sound the mian dough makes when being smacked against a table or chopping board).

Meanwhile, Szechuanese cuisine has a dish called 豆花饭 (douhuafan), a kind of soft tofu topped with a chili oil/paste combination, and all served over rice. The final preparation of this includes not just chili powder, flakes, and paste, but cardamon, MSG, star anise, dried sand ginger, garlic, scallions, and white pepper. 

I’ve made biang biang mian a few times before, but I wasn’t quite up to sourcing all of the things needed for douhuafan, so I decided to split the difference, with a few twists. Instead of soft tofu, I lightly coated firm tofu in corn starch, pan-fried it, and placed that over rice. Instead of sticking to the standard combo of chili powder, chili flakes, green onion, garlic, and salt with the biang biang spice, I incorporated a pinch of MSG into that base mix, and placed a piece of smashed ginger, two star anise seeds, and 1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns into the hot oil, and poured it through a fine-mesh sieve onto the spice mix. From there, I added equal measure of Canto black vinegar and Kikkoman Japanese market soy sauce into the oil to create a dip that could also be used to smother the crisp tofu.

You can see the whole process here, and I will leave a recipe in the comments for anyone that may wish to try it:

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  1. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Ingredients: 

    Pan Fried Tofu

    150 grams of firm or extreme firm tofu

    2 tablespoons of corn starch 

    1 pinch of salt 

    1 pinch of white or black pepper

    Xi’an/Szechuan Sauce 

    2 tablespoons chili powder 

    ½ tablespoon chili flakes 

    3 tablespoons cooking oil (peanut or vegetable would work well)

    ¼ teaspoon MSG 

    ¼ teaspoon salt 

    2 cloves of garlic, finely minced 

    1 or 2 green onions, sliced 

    2 ½ inch pieces of ginger, smashed 

    2 star anise pods

    ½ tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns 

    3 tablespoons decent quality soy sauce 

    3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar 

    ½ teaspoon sesame seeds

     

      1. Combine chili powder, chili flakes, garlic, sesame seeds, MSG, salt, and green onion in a bowl with high sides. Put oil, Szechuan peppercorns, ginger, and star anise pods in a pan and heat over medium high. When the oil begins to smoke, pour through a strainer onto the bowl of seasonings. Add soy sauce and black vinegar, and set aside. 
      2. Remove tofu from the container and lightly rinse, then gently pat dry with a paper towel. Slice into squares slightly more than ¼ inch thick, and lay out. Combine the corn starch, salt, and pepper, and put into a mesh strainer. Heat pan with tablespoon of oil over medium high heat and wait until hot. Dust mixture over both sides of tofu and transfer into pan. Cook for 5 minutes on both sides, until golden brown and crispy. 
      3. Depending upon preference, you could add the seasoning to the pan directly over the tofu and put on rice, or place the tofu on rice from the pan and serve with the sauce on the side. 

     

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

     

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The food looks and sounds wonderful, not astoundingly different for fans of wok-cooked southeast Asian dishes; they’re in the ballpark. There’s really no excuse not to give it a try. I mean, KW left out the chicken feet and the blood, so she’s at least meeting us halfway. 

    Yes, sometimes these hearty un-American, non-carnivore recipes are a subject of the jocular persiflage of our social set, but only in the nicest way. The PIT: We Scare Because We Care.

     

    • #2
  3. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    I’ll eat anything (almost) once if my host eats it.  I won’t guarantee a second time.

    We did decide one trip to Japan to find something “that wasn’t looking back at us.”

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KirkianWanderer: Before you start to feel too bad for them, you can rest assured that they are not passive victims in this endeavour

    • #4
  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The food looks and sounds wonderful, not astoundingly different for fans of wok-cooked southeast Asian dishes; they’re in the ballpark. There’s really no excuse not to give it a try. I mean, KW left out the chicken feet and the blood, so she’s at least meeting us halfway.

    Yes, sometimes these hearty un-American, non-carnivore recipes are a subject of the jocular persiflage of our social set, but only in the nicest way. The PIT: We Scare Because We Care.

     

    Thanks.

    All things considered, it got a warmer response (or at least a less disgusted one) than that mature kimchi head I bought in October, or the chicken feet I got for my birthday. 

    • #5
  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The food looks and sounds wonderful, not astoundingly different for fans of wok-cooked southeast Asian dishes; they’re in the ballpark. There’s really no excuse not to give it a try. I mean, KW left out the chicken feet and the blood, so she’s at least meeting us halfway.

    Yes, sometimes these hearty un-American, non-carnivore recipes are a subject of the jocular persiflage of our social set, but only in the nicest way. The PIT: We Scare Because We Care.

    This is actually the PiT’s way of fulfilling its community service obligations; fill-in parents (food based mocking and all) for college students abroad.

     

    • #6
  7. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

    Now you have my attention. :)

    • #7
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

    Now you have my attention. :)

    Thought that might get some more takers. 

    If someone were to do it with meat, I’d marinate in some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (maybe a pinch of salt too) for at least an hour ahead of time, and probably use the combination method with the sauce rather than use it as a dip.

    • #8
  9. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

    Now you have my attention. :)

    Thought that might get some more takers.

    If someone were to do it with meat, I’d marinate in some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (maybe a pinch of salt too) for at least an hour ahead of time, and probably use the combination method with the sauce rather than use it as a dip.

    (Also a bit of shaoxing wine for the chicken if you’ve got it, since it tends to make the flavor cleaner).

    • #9
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    “J’accuse!” Kirkland Wanderer. My COVID Bump is exultant and I despair. Seriously, I just had lunch and this still made me hungry.

    • #10
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Zafar (View Comment):

    “J’accuse!” Kirkland Wanderer. My COVID Bump is exultant and I despair. Seriously, I just had lunch and this still made me hungry.

    Ah, I apologize! (Ironically enough, I’m doing my dissertation on the Dreyfus Case as a test case for mimetic theory and the scape goating mechanism, so I’ve been getting plenty of Zola, ‘J’accuse’ and all). And thank you, I’m glad it sounds good. 

    • #11
  12. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

    Now you have my attention. :)

    Thought that might get some more takers.

    If someone were to do it with meat, I’d marinate in some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (maybe a pinch of salt too) for at least an hour ahead of time, and probably use the combination method with the sauce rather than use it as a dip.

    Yeah, I’ve never really cared for any tofu that I’ve come across, but then again I don’t know what is considered “good” in that arena anyway so it’s easier to go with what I know. My wife loves Asian cuisine (the chicken feet might be too far for her…), and the kids will eat just about anything served on rice. We’ll have to try it.

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    • Note: Chicken or beef would probably also work well in this dish in lieu of tofu.

     

    Now you have my attention. :)

    Thought that might get some more takers.

    If someone were to do it with meat, I’d marinate in some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (maybe a pinch of salt too) for at least an hour ahead of time, and probably use the combination method with the sauce rather than use it as a dip.

    Yeah, I’ve never really cared for any tofu that I’ve come across, but then again I don’t know what is considered “good” in that arena anyway so it’s easier to go with what I know. My wife loves Asian cuisine (the chicken feet might be too far for her…), and the kids will eat just about anything served on rice. We’ll have to try it.

    As William Macy said about flan in the movie Wag the Dog: there is no difference between good tofu and bad tofu.

    • #13
  14. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Sounds great except the MSG. Slightest hint of MSG and I feel like my eyes are going to pop out of my head.

    Tofu is always great. Have you ever added dried mushrooms to it to give it both flavor and chewiness? I bet it would work.

    I’ve had chicken feet once. Don’t understand the attraction. Understood it is considered a delicacy, but don’t see the attraction. Not much there.

    • #14
  15. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Percival (View Comment):
    As William Macy said about flan in the movie Wag the Dog: there is no difference between good tofu and bad tofu.

    this simply means you have never tried stinky dofu from Taiwan.  And even with that, there is in my opinion, both good and bad stinky dofu. (though most Westerners seem to concur that any stinky dofu is bad dofu.) 

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    As William Macy said about flan in the movie Wag the Dog: there is no difference between good tofu and bad tofu.

    this simply means you have never tried stinky dofu from Taiwan. And even with that, there is in my opinion, both good and bad stinky dofu. (though most Westerners seem to concur that any stinky dofu is bad dofu.)

    It doesn’t matter how you spell it; it’s bean goo!

    • #16
  17. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Sounds great except the MSG. Slightest hint of MSG and I feel like my eyes are going to pop out of my head.

    Tofu is always great. Have you ever added dried mushrooms to it to give it both flavor and chewiness? I bet it would work.

    I’ve had chicken feet once. Don’t understand the attraction. Understood it is considered a delicacy, but don’t see the attraction. Not much there.

    You could almost certainly do without the MSG, and I bet that dried mushrooms would be a great substitute for the slight reduction in umami.

    • #17
  18. Giulietta Inactive
    Giulietta
    @giuliettachicago

    What a great post! I love seeing recipes in progress.

    Where do you look to for recipes? Cookbooks, blogs? My father pointed me to Omnivore’s Cookbook which has an amazing website. Woks of Life has a user-friendly set-up as well.

    • #18
  19. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    What a great post! I love seeing recipes in progress.

    Where do you look to for recipes? Cookbooks, blogs? My father pointed me to Omnivore’s Cookbook which has an amazing website. Woks of Life has a user-friendly set-up as well.

    Woks of Life is very good. 

    I speak/read a tiny bit of Chinese, so sometimes I use Chinese language recipes (with the assistance of GoogleTranslate). I also have the benefit of a very close Taiwanese friend who knows a lot about techniques and recipes herself. Honestly, that’s what I do the majority of the time, or I’ll look at 5 or 6 videos and websites in either language and sometimes combine recipes/methods.

    Chef Wang is quite good for authentic Chinese (especially Szechuan) recipes, and there’s no fluff in his videos (they have English subtitles): 

    Chinese Cooking Demystified also provides well researched, thorough recipes and videos (mostly on southern Chinese and Cantonese cuisine), run by an American guy and his Chinese partner who live in Shenzhen: 

    • #19
  20. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    What a great post! I love seeing recipes in progress.

    Where do you look to for recipes? Cookbooks, blogs? My father pointed me to Omnivore’s Cookbook which has an amazing website. Woks of Life has a user-friendly set-up as well.

    Woks of Life is very good.

    I speak/read a tiny bit of Chinese, so sometimes I use Chinese language recipes (with the assistance of GoogleTranslate). I also have the benefit of a very close Taiwanese friend who knows a lot about techniques and recipes herself. Honestly, that’s what I do the majority of the time, or I’ll look at 5 or 6 videos and websites in either language and sometimes combine recipes/methods.

    Chef Wang is quite good for authentic Chinese (especially Szechuan) recipes, and there’s no fluff in his videos (they have English subtitles):

    Chinese Cooking Demystified also provides well researched, thorough recipes and videos (mostly on southern Chinese and Cantonese cuisine), run by an American guy and his Chinese partner who live in Shenzhen:

    I hope that your cooking in your small flat isn’t starting with a live chicken.

    • #20
  21. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Captain French (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Giulietta (View Comment):

    What a great post! I love seeing recipes in progress.

    Where do you look to for recipes? Cookbooks, blogs? My father pointed me to Omnivore’s Cookbook which has an amazing website. Woks of Life has a user-friendly set-up as well.

    Woks of Life is very good.

    I speak/read a tiny bit of Chinese, so sometimes I use Chinese language recipes (with the assistance of GoogleTranslate). I also have the benefit of a very close Taiwanese friend who knows a lot about techniques and recipes herself. Honestly, that’s what I do the majority of the time, or I’ll look at 5 or 6 videos and websites in either language and sometimes combine recipes/methods.

    Chef Wang is quite good for authentic Chinese (especially Szechuan) recipes, and there’s no fluff in his videos (they have English subtitles):

    Chinese Cooking Demystified also provides well researched, thorough recipes and videos (mostly on southern Chinese and Cantonese cuisine), run by an American guy and his Chinese partner who live in Shenzhen:

    I hope that your cooking in your small flat isn’t starting with a live chicken.

    No. For the sake of the neighbors, at least, I haven’t murdered any chickens in my kitchen. I’v watched some of those videos on the family tv before and my mom really doesn’t appreciate them, especially the one where he butchers a turtle.

    • #21
  22. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I have murdered any chickens in my kitchen.

    Really?

    • #22
  23. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Clavius (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I have murdered any chickens in my kitchen.

    Really?

    I suppose if you don’t have any chickens in your kitchen it is OK.

    • #23
  24. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Clavius (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I have murdered any chickens in my kitchen.

    Really?

    Shoot,”haven’t.”

    • #24
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