10 most popular Sichuan dishes
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Sichuan is a southwestern province in China famous for its giant pandas and delicious cuisine. And while giant pandas are pretty cool, Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine is what we’re really interested in. As well as being one of the most popular choices of cuisine within China, it’s also gained popularity around the world.
Sichuan cuisine is known for its hot and spicy flavours, with its dishes having a liberal use of chillies and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns (you can find some on our website here). But it’s not just spice that Sichuan cuisine uses. Many dishes sport sweet and sour flavours too, with seasonings like ginger, green onion, garlic, fresh/dried/pickled chillies, preserved vegetables and cooking wines. We’ve put together some of the most popular Sichuan dishes that you should try out.
If you’ve ever ordered Chinese takeaway, then you’re most likely to have come across kung pao chicken on the menu. This is a popular dish made with peanuts or cashew nuts, hot chillies and chicken marinated in Chinese rice wine, soy sauce and cornstarch. This is then all stir fried together. Its Chinese name, Gongbao Jiding literally translates to ‘palace protected chicken cubes’, and it’s thought that the dish was named after Ding Baozhen, a late Qing Dynasty official and governor of Sichuan Province.
Mapo tofu is another popular dish. Soft cubes of tofu are cooked in a fermented broad bean paste, fermented black beans and chilli paste. Other ingredients include water chestnuts, onions, Sichuan peppercorns and wood ear mushrooms, topped with ground beef or pork. The name translates to ‘pock-marked grandmother’s tofu’ and although there are many speculations as to how it got its name, one thing is for sure – that this spicy, pungent and smooth dish really shows the true characteristics of Sichuan cuisine.
This dish is served as a cold appetiser and is made of thinly sliced braised beef, stomach and tongue doused in a sauce made from black vinegar, chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil, sesame seeds and garlic, served with roasted peanuts and chopped coriander leaves. Although the dish has been around for a while, it’s thought that the modern version comes from a married couple in Chengdu who made a living selling the dish.
Some of the best food is found on the streets, and wontons in red chilli oil is just one of those must-have street snacks. Although wontons originate from the south eastern provinces of China like Guangdong, cooks in Sichuan have found a way to put their own spin on them. These pork dumplings are boiled before being served with a spicy, sweet and savoury sauce. The best street vendors make their own chilli sauce with fried dried chillies, sugar, black vinegar, soy sauce, fresh garlic, ginger and green onion.
If you’ve never had Sichuan hot pot before, you’re in for a treat. A hot pot is prepared using a simmering pot of soup stock which is presented at the centre of the dining tables. An array of raw ingredients such as thinly sliced meat, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, vermicelli noodles, sliced potatoes, egg dumplings, tofu and seafood are served alongside it. You simply dip these into the pot in a manner similar to fondue – a fun dinner party idea if you’re having friends and family over. The broth itself is flavoured with spices like chilli peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented bean paste, ginger, bay leaves, garlic, cinnamon, star anise and cloves.
The dan dan noodles you’ll find in Sichuan are slightly different to what we may be used to in the West. They’re usually sold from street vendors, and as you walk down the streets you’ll find their stands piled high with fresh noodles alongside bowls of condiments like black vinegar, soy sauce, dried chillies, sugar, salt, ground Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ground peanuts, chopped scallions, pickled mustard root, red chilli oil and ground pork. A small spoonful of each condiment goes in the bowl with the noodles, resulting in a bowl of savoury, nutty, spicy and smokey goodness.
Liangfen is made from starch jelly which can be made from mung bean starch, pea starch or sweet potato starch. Chuanbei liangfen uses mung bean starch to create a jelly which is served cold together with a savoury, spicy sauce. The sauce is typically made with soy sauce, vinegar, minced garlic, ginger, sesame paste and chilli oil, and topped with peanuts, radish and carrot strips. The dish packs plenty of heat as well as a deep, roasted, smoky flavour.
Don’t let the photo of this dish scare you – it may be spicy but it’s also rich in flavour and deliciously fragrant. Tender fillets of fish (usually catfish, carp or sole) are marinated in rice wine and white pepper, brined, covered in corn starch and then added to a bowl of hot broth. Chillies, ginger, green onion, garlic slices and coriander leaves are added to the bowl, alongside a large helping of chilli oil flavoured with dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Here’s a dish which remarkably isn’t spicy at all (at least for Sichuan standards). Pork is first simmered in a mixture of water, rice wine and spices like ginger, cloves, star anise and jujubes. The pork is then cut into thin slices and stir-fried with vegetables like bell peppers, leeks and scallions, as well as chilli paste, sweet bean paste, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine and hoisin sauce.
Bang bang chicken is a great appetiser or side dish and is often found in street carts around Chengdu. Served cold, bang bang chicken consists of poached and shredded chicken and julienned cucumbers served with a spicy sauce of chilli oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, Sichuan peppercorns and spring onions. The name comes from the way the chicken is prepared: using a rolling pin to beat the chicken to tenderise each piece before being shredded.
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