The New History of the art of Sichuan Sauce
Chinese food as we know it has a debt to the Sichuan region, and that’s true of Chinese food abroad as much as anything. Everything from Zhong dumplings to kung pao chicken have their roots in Sichuan cooking, and the street food there is as lively and experimental as anywhere in the world. And Sichuan food wouldn’t be where it was without the sauces. But the history of Sichuan sauce is a history of increasingly layered flavor profiles, and one of influences that spread across every corner of the world.
A New Culinary Paradise
While the Sichuan cuisine of centuries ago would be very different than it is today, it would still have been regarded as one of the most fertile stretches of agricultural land on the continent. In part, that’s thanks to the geographical diversity. Abundant valley lands offered generous quantities of grazing lands, rice, and vegetables. In fact, the Sichuan region has long been known as the “heavenly country” thanks to both the diversity and the quality of the ingredients available there.
But early Sichuan cuisine reflected less facets of modern recipes. Rather than lead with spiciness, many Sichuan dishes instead focused their attention on earthy and pungent ingredients. Mushrooms, onions, and garlic continue to be some of the most important ingredients in Sichuan cooking, although a richer tableau of spices have since been made a part of any Sichuan kitchen. It also established one of the most critical staples in Sichuan cuisine: the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Imports From the Middle East
The early recipes of Sichuan were filling, humble, and earthy, but there were definitely elements of what the most important dishes would eventually come to look like. But it wouldn’t be until the Middle Ages when the Silk Road would create new lines of commerce and expose the Sichuan region to a rich variety of new flavors. It would change both the agricultural priorities and the trajectory of the cuisine in Sichuan.
At least two of these new crops would come to serve as cornerstones of future Sichuan cooking. The introduction of sesame brought with it a rich and nutty accompaniment to existing flavors and a new way of frying food – in the form of both dark and light sesame oils respectively. Broad beans also appeared during this time, and broad bean paste is such an essential ingredient today that it’s hard to imagine Sichuan cooking without it.
The New Advanced World Finishing the Formula
By the time Europeans made contact with the Americas, Sichuan cooking was already established throughout China for being satisfying. That discovery would, in a roundabout way, bring the final ingredient in what would become modern Sichuan cooking: the chili. While the chili didn’t directly travel to China, it did eventually find its way through global supply lines. And it would become an essential ingredient in many dishes.
It succeeded because of how well it combines with existing regional ingredients. A mix of oil, garlic, and chilis are synonymous with Sichuan cooking, and the heat of a chili offers an addictive counterpoint to the numbing effect of native Sichuan pepper. Almost every Sichuan sauce uses a combination of a few fundamental ingredients, but the actual breadth of Sichuan cuisine is staggering. There’s a complexity and variety of flavor profiles at work in Sichuan dishes, and that can be intimidating at first. But you can start simple. If you want to start incorporating Sichuan sauce into your kitchen, check out some core staples like mala sauce or chili garlic sauce, and expand outward from there.