'Strange' Flavour in Sichuan

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Written by James
Published on 12th March 2024 at 09:47 • No comments yet, be the first!

As part of my summer trip to China, I took the (350km/hr!!) train from one of Beijing's mind-bogglingly massive new train stations to Sichuan province to meet up with our new chilli supplier, as well as sample some of the local food. 

Sichuan in the south-west of the country, as well as Chongqing and nearby Hunan province are known as the chilli-eating centres of China so I was keen to try this spicy cuisine for myself. 

Sichuan food is renowned for its ‘ma la’ taste - hot from dried chillies, and numbing from sichuan pepper. This reaches its pinnacle in the enormous city of Chongqing which is renowned for some of the spiciest food in China.

Sichuan pepper berries ready to be picked and dried. They don't tend to be used fresh very often, but are sometimes pickled or infused in oil rather than dried. The flavour is perfumed and citrussy but also with a really unfamiliar numbing effect on the tongue (a bit like the effect of licking a battery!)

The amazing range of dried chillies used in China, and the way they're used is really different to anywhere else. Chinese chillies tend to have thin skins so go really crispy when dried. They're also often fried or mixed with oil after drying to preserve the stunning colour which is so important when used to make chilli oil

A range of condiments used in a restaurant - soy sauce, sesame oil, black vinegar, chilli oil, and a couple of different 'cooked' soy sauces which involve simmering soy sauce with aromatics like star anise, black cardamon and ginger plus lots of sugar to make a thick syruppy and very flavoursome sauce to dress noodles, dumplings or salads

The other side of the same condiments table! Here are sugar, salt, peanuts, chilli and thick roasted sesame paste. It's the combination of these sweet, hot, sour and numbing elements that make up the key flavours of Sichuan food which is known as Guaiwei - translated as 'strange', 'exotic' or 'mysterious' due to the variety of flavours involved!

A sesame paste stall in the local market. They grind the sesame paste on-site and there's a rich nutty scent in the air. 


In China the sesame paste is similar to tahini but the sesame seeds tend to be darker roasted so it has a richer, fuller flavour. It's used in dressings and sauces for noodles where it adds richness and complexity

VIsiting the spice processing factory outside the city, I was amazed to hear about the volumes of dried chillies that are used in Sichuan restaurants, particularly for hotpot. Apparently this pretty-average sized spice company supplies a local chain of hotpot restaurants who gets through 2 TONNES of dried chillies PER DAY!!! 

Shovelling a mountain of dried green Sichuan pepper into sacks. I did notice one pallet of these going to a European perfume manufacturer rather than a food producer which seemed a bit odd, but the floral, citrussy scent of these peppercorns is incredibly heady so perhaps they make fabulous perfume as well as tasting great!

Some fresh chillies in the market before drying. There are dozens of different varieties used in China but they all tend to be fairly moderate heat (none are really explosive like Mexican or Caribbean chillies), but they all have an incredible colour and paper-thin skins. This helps them to infuse the colour and flavour really effectively into oil which is how they're most often used

Chinese hotpot normally has at least 2 separate sections - 1 hot and spicy one, and 1 very mild one so you can cook your ingredients in the bubbling broth of your choice. Chongqing style seems to only have 1 section - the reddest, oiliest, hottest and spiciest broth you can imagine!

The base of a typical Chongqing hotpot - fistfulls of dried chillies, sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger and huge lumps of infused orange fat which I think must have been lard or beef fat. Either way it looked like quite a lot for of everything for 2 people! The hot pot is filled with stock and brought to the boil for all the aromatics to infuse. You then cook your fresh ingredients in the hot bubbling broth

Looking rather nervous before taking my first bite...

A mix of different ingredients to cook in our hotpot - tripe and offal are all very popular, as well as seafood, shredded vegetables, noodles, seaweed, and weirdly also slices of spam and the cheapest type of tinned frankfurters as well!

Trying to look enthusiastic before my first bite. To be honest it was totally delicious and whilst the broth looks very intimidating with all the chillies and red oil, you only end up with the lightest coating on your ingredients that you then toss in your own mix of garlic, coriander, sesame oil and soy so it's a great way to enjoy a long, delicious and very interactive meal (although you do seem to be sweating out spicy beef fat for a couple of days afterwards!)

Bowls of chilli and sichuan pepper oil ready to be topped with noodles and hot broth to make Chongqing noodles

Chongqing noodles are EXTREMELY spicy and leave your lips numb with all the sichuan pepper and chilli oil. There’s a warning on the menu board about the heat levels for these noodles, and you sort of stagger away from the table feeling slightly light-headed, but weirdly euphoric after eating these. 

‘Burning’ Noodles - not so much named for the heat, as for the amounts of oil used in making them, as well as crushed walnuts and sesame paste to make a rich and moreish coating for the noodles 

Sichuan-style dumplings with chilli oil dressing and more roasted chilli powder and sesame seeds on top

One of the famous dumpling restaurants in Chengdu - these small backstreet places are often called 'fly' restaurants (maybe because they attract customers like flies, not for the hygiene standards!)

Wok-fried beans with minced pork and a mountain of dried chillies. There are lots of dishes similar to this where the chillies are there for a dramatic presentation and to add their flavour but not too much heat - you're not supposed to eat them all!

‘Sweet water’ noodles - these thick noodles are tossed in a mix of sweetened spicy soy sauce and sesame paste then topped with crushed peanuts

Tofu Soup with chilli oil, spring onions and a crispy sort-of Bombay Mix on the top! (works better than you might think and is delicious for breakfast!)

This was (literally at times) a breathtaking visit full of amazing new food experiences. Whilst China isn't the easiest country to visit now, I'd certainly recommend it if you're able to go, or maybe search through your local restaurants as more and more regional Chinese restaurants are now popping up around the country as more mainland Chinese move to the UK for work and study. 

We're currently working on an exciting new project to bring some of these extraordinary (strange and mysterious!) flavours to you, so keep an eye on your spicemails for further updates.....

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