One evening after I had arrived in Sichuan, my friends Zhou Yu and Tao Ping took me to a nameless restaurant on the riverbanks of Chongqing. It was the height of summer and the air was viscous with humidity. Even the mosquitoes seemed to move more slowly. We sat around a seething cauldron of chiles and Sichuan pepper known as a hot pot, with side dishes of various types of offal and still-twitching fish. We began to cook, and eat, dipping the raw ingredients into the fiery broth with chopsticks.
My hosts plied me with strands of goose intestine, shivering sheets of tripe, rabbit’s ears. Each morsel emerged from the broth in a slick of fiery oil, studded with dried chile and the prickly husks of Sichuan pepper, its taste indescribably hot and numbing. My tongue burned, my lips felt barbed with pins and needles, sweat ran down my back. By the end of the meal I was ragged, almost delirious with heat. Pain and pleasure were indistinguishable. And the aftereffects…well, hot pot is a powerful purgative, and the first lesson I learned as a foreign student in Sichuan was to never, ever consume it on the eve of a long train journey.
In China chile-infused dishes have long been a thrill known only to those who lived or traveled deep into the mainland, to the Sichuan and Hunan provinces. Fortunately that’s no longer the case. In recent years the cooking here has become too good and too innovative to remain so isolated, and suddenly chile peppers are showing up in the best kitchens of China’s cosmopolitan cities.
Though chiles have long been a part of Sichuan and Hunan culture, they were actually introduced by Portuguese traders who brought the barbarian pepper (fan jiao), as it was then known, from the Americas to China’s eastern coast in the 1500s. At first the easterners were struck by the beauty of the red fruit and cultivated it as an ornamental plant. By the late 1600s it was sometimes used as a substitute for pepper, and within a century it had become a common component of everyday meals.
But the people of eastern China soon lost their taste for the import, just as it had found its way inland into the heart of Hunan. It was probably Hunan immigrants, sweeping into Sichuan in the early years of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), who converted the Sichuanese to the habit of chile consumption. In Sichuan today, the dialectal term is still sea pepper (hai jiao), a reference to its overseas origins.
Why did the inhabitants of Hunan and Sichuan provinces take to the chile so fiercely when for the country’s easterners it was no more than a passing phase? Most locals insist that it comes down to geographic determinism. These regions are known for insufferable summers and cold, clammy winters which, according to ancient Chinese medicine, impair one’s yang energy and cause sluggishness—symptoms that can supposedly be combated by “heating foods,” which drive out humidity from the body. “Hundreds of years before the chile’s introduction, the people of Sichuan already loved hot seasonings,” says Wang Xudong, the editor of Sichuan Pengren (Sichuan Cuisine) magazine, as he fends off the winter damp with a pork dumpling dressed in chile oil.
The Chinese also believe that chiles lend their fiery qualities to those who eat them. The Sichuanese and Hunanese refer to their snappiest young women as “spice girls” (literally “chile-hot misses,” la mei zi). Mao Tse-tung, who was from Hunan, swore that you couldn’t be a revolutionary if you didn’t eat chiles, and his own passion for hot food was legendary. Even when he was chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, he insisted that his chefs serve him fiery Hunanese peasant food. “His favorites included steamed ‘fire-baked fish’ [huo bei yu] and smoky bacon steamed with smoked fish, ground chile, and fermented black beans,” says Shi Yinxiang, a master chef now 90 years old who cooked for Mao whenever he visited Hunan. According to local food writer Liu Guochu, Mao’s retort to a doctor who had the nerve to advise him to cut back on his chile consumption for the sake of his health was “If you are scared of the chiles in your bowl, how on earth will you dare to fight your enemies?”
The locals in these provinces often compare their chile habit to a drug addiction. “If I have to eat food without chile for more than a day or two,” one restaurant manager confessed as we ate ripe fermented bean curd with ground chile, “I start to feel so sad. It’s just like opium.” People from the provinces usually tuck a potful of chile sauce in their luggage when traveling.
"Of course it is partly about flavor,” says magazine editor Wang. “Chile adds an extra dimension to eating beyond the basic taste sensations of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. If you eat too many it can actually be painful for the tongue, but at the same time there is this feeling of excitement. There is pleasure and happiness mixed in with the pain.”
The thrill of the chile comes from capsaicin, an alkaloid substance found mainly in the pale seed-bearing placenta of the fruit. Capsaicin irritates the skin and any delicate area of the body. In the mouth it induces an inflammation that heightens the effects of all sorts of sensations, including other flavors, changes in temperature, and touch—one reason, perhaps, why Sichuan dining can be such an intense experience. Capsaicin also interferes with the body’s thermostat, inducing sweating and increasing blood flow to the skin, and ratchets up the metabolic rate. The chile burn may also stimulate the brain to release its natural painkillers, or endorphins, leading to a feeling of well-being that outlasts the burn itself. Psychology professor Paul Rozin, of the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that eating chiles is a bit like riding a roller coaster: a chance to savor the taste of danger without risking actual harm.
The hot chiles used in Chinese cooking are unlike the familiar Mexican varieties. In Sichuan one of the traditional favorites is the “facing-heaven chile,” so named because its fruit points upward as it grows. Short, plump, thin-skinned (hence its other name, zi dan tou, or the bullethead), and with a heat that stimulates but doesn’t overpower, the facing-heaven chile is usually sun-dried but can also be pickled in a brine seasoned with wine and spices. Dried versions are often used in hot pots and in stir-fries such as the famous Gong Bao chicken with peanuts, for which they are seared in hot oil to give the “scorched-chile flavor” (hu la wei) that is a hallmark of the dish.
The other essential Sichuan chile is the “two golden strips” (er jin tiao), a slightly curved type that is typically three to four inches long. Milder than the facing-heaven, it’s often toasted and ground with its seeds before being infused in vegetable oil to make the ruby-red chile oil used so lavishly in Sichuan appetizers. Alternatively, when pickled it develops a scarlet hue and a mellow, sour-hot taste that is a marvelous complement to fish. (The combination of a paste made from pickled chiles with ginger, garlic, scallion, and a hint of sweet and sour is so strongly associated with seafood in Sichuan that dishes prepared with these flavorings are known as fish-fragrant, yu xiang). In the summer harvest season the rural wholesale markets glow red with the scarlet of just-picked chiles spilling out of woven bamboo baskets.
While the Sichuanese prefer their chiles dried, pickled, or fermented with beans, the Hunanese make much greater use of fresh chile peppers. Long red ones, often paired with whole fermented black soybeans, add color and piquancy to vegetable dishes—snaky water-spinach stems, perhaps, or steamed eggplants. Fresh green peppers with varying degrees of heat (you never know what to expect) are sizzled in a wok with slices of pork and soy sauce to make one of the most delicious Hunanese peasant dishes.
In winter the Hunanese, like their Sichuan neighbors, rely on pickled chiles. The most essential variety is “chopped chiles” (duo la jiao), a simple preserve made by rough-chopping fresh, long red chiles with their seeds, mixing them with salt, then leaving them to ferment in a pickle jar. After a couple of weeks they acquire a sour, salty taste and a soft, juicy texture. In my friend Fan Qun’s parents’ house in the Hunan countryside, the earthenware jars of duo la jiao stand in a row near the table where she makes New Year offerings to her ancestors. We scoop the bright relish out of the secret darkness of the jars and eat it with rice and noodles or as an ingredient in the family’s daily cooking. A spoonful in a stir-fry of Chinese leaf cabbage or on top of a bowl of steamed taro transforms these humble vegetables. In the cities a steamed carp’s head resplendent with a duo la jiao topping has become one of the best-known Hunan dishes.
When it comes to dried chiles, the Hunanese favor smaller, slimmer ones such as the “small rice pepper” (xiao mi jiao), which has an aggressive spiciness far removed from the subtle heat of Sichuan dried chiles and closer to those found in Thai and Indian cooking. In Hunan markets dried chiles spill out of enormous sacks, bloodred, flame-orange, and mottled red and gold. They are often crushed with a mortar and pestle before being added to a wok. Milder varieties, like the plump lantern pepper (deng long jiao), are used as vegetables or to add color to a dish.
A meal in either Hunan or Sichuan without chile is almost inconceivable. “You can’t get the rice down without it” is a common refrain. A Hunan supper at a popular restaurant like the Western Lake Pavilion in Changsha might begin with fermented bean curd (a pungent relish laced with fiery ground chile) and crunchy semidried radish strips with preserved chopped chiles. Later you might move on to a salad of grilled peppers tossed with slices of a 100-year egg, a wickedly hot stir-fry of duck and dried chiles, and a bubbling hot pot of frog with fresh and pickled chiles. A Sichuan meal typically opens with a selection of cool appetizers, perhaps cucumber drizzled in chile oil and aromatic cooked duck hearts with a dip of ground chile and Sichuan pepper. Main dishes are strewn with pickled chiles and chile bean paste.
Yet the crude stereotypes of Sichuan and Hunan cuisines being terrifyingly spicy are misleading. While Chongqing hot pot may live up to its fiendish reputation, chefs in those provinces counterbalance the bold tastes with a soothing soup or stew and simple steamed or stir-fried vegetables. “Outsiders just label Sichuan food as hot,” says one talented local chef, Lan Guijun. “The layering of flavors is completely lost on them.” His own cooking is astonishingly subtle: A recent banquet he prepared at the Wu Yuan restaurant in Chengdu provided a symphony of flavors, with notes of sour pickled chiles in a crocodile stew and a “fish-fragrant sauce” with a base of chile bean paste drizzled over bean curd–skin rolls contrasted by milder flavors. Sichuanese believe that chiles are meant not to blind the palate to sensation but to whet the appetite and awaken the senses.
Visit another high-end Chengdu restaurant such as Piaoxiang (Floating Fragrance) and you’ll wonder why you ever thought Sichuan food was such a sensory assault. Renowned chef Xiao Jianming, who once cooked for international leaders at the legendary Szechuan Restaurant in Beijing, serves fiery classics, among them “water-boiled beef” (shui zhu niu rou) topped by seared chiles and Sichuan pepper. He’ll also present cold sliced pork in an irresistible dressing of spiced, sweetened soy sauce pepped up with chile oil and garlic, or steamed cod bathed in a fish-fragrant sauce, replete with garlic, ginger, and scallion. It is unparalleled proof that the Sichuanese know how to make the most of a chile.
The news of the last few years has been the rediscovery of the chile by residents of eastern China centuries after their ancestors cast it off. The traditional cooking of Shanghai and the east is sweet and rich—soy sauce, rock sugar, and Shaoxing wine are the favored seasonings—and until recently people in this part of China considered the spicy cuisines of the western provinces cheap peasant food. But in the last few years Sichuan cuisine has become the most fashionable in China. One of its pioneers was Zhang Lan, a glamorous fortysomething Beijinger who debuted a chain of restaurants called South Beauty in Beijing in 1991, which serves a modernized version of Sichuan food in opulent surroundings that are a world away from the clamor of traditional Sichuan eateries. Zhang now has 18 restaurants, with branches in Shanghai.
"Sichuan food is endlessly exciting for the taste buds,” Zhang says. “I think it’s popular now because people lead such hectic lives and the stimulating properties of chile help to relieve stress. And of course it’s fantastically healthy, high in vitamins, a cure-all for diseases.” Shanghai food writer Michelle Liu has her own theory as to why the chile has become all the rage lately. “In Shanghai social life, you are expected to be polite, polished, and sophisticated and to hide the baser sides of your character,” she notes. “Eating chiles makes you feel bold and passionate. Spicy Sichuan food is for us the gastronomic equivalent of sexy Latin music.”
Posh Spice Eateries
Lan Club The Philippe Starck–designed jewel of the South Beauty Group offers Sichuan dishes in over-the-top surroundings. Dinner, $130; 86-10/5109-6012
Meizhou Dongpo This member of a popular Sichuan chain dishes out traditional and new-wave cooking. Try the Bang Bang chicken in spicy sauce. Dinner, $15; 86-10/6417-1668
Piaoxiang Ask the staff, headed by famed chef Xiao Jianming, to design you a menu that includes the cold-dressed pork slices with wild vegetables or the fiery boiled beef slices. Dinner, $40; 86-28/8553-1388
Yu’s Family Kitchen Culinary dynamo Yu Bo creates dazzling banquets out of traditional and modern Sichuan fare. Rice jelly with fresh abalone in chile sauce is a speciality. Dinner, $50; 86-28/8669-1975
881 South Beauty An old banker’s mansion transformed into a glamorous Sichuan restaurant, 881 serves classic dishes such as cold chicken in spicy sauce and shredded pork stir-fried with pickled ginger and chile. Dinner, $130; 86-21/6247-6682
Guyi Hunan Restaurant This cheerful, cacophonous spot in the old French Concession serves authentic Hunan food. Try the sizzling mutton ribs with chile and cumin, as well as the Western Hunan duck hot pot. Dinner, $20; 86-21/6249-5628
Despite the wit and artistry of the best Chinese chefs, the Western world has been slow to recognize their talents. Europe-based Restaurant magazine routinely puts just one or two Chinese restaurants in its annual list of the world’s top 50; in 2006 only Alan Yau’s Hakkasan in London made it. This is largely an issue of cultural reference points—much of why we appreciate, say, foie gras oozing from a burger is because we can delight in the juxtaposition of the luxurious and the quotidian. When I visited Thomas Keller’s French Laundry with three top Sichuan chefs, they politely ate their way through nine magnificent courses but confided that they found the rare lamb and “medicinal” olives revolting and had no idea what to make of anything else. So while it may take time for the Western world of gastronomy to give Chinese chefs appropriate acclaim, in the meantime we should at least acknowledge what we are missing.