Peppered across the country

Why Sichuan fare tops China’s favourite food rankings

Hotpot w

Taste bud numbing cuisine

In a measure of how seriously Sichuan people take their cuisine they decided it needed a museum. To remind tourists that the province has more to offer than its pandas, the capital opened the Chengdu Sichuan Cuisine Museum in 2007. The venue cost Rmb100 million ($15 million) to build and features more than 3,000 bronze, pottery, porcelain and wood cookers dating back for 2,000 years.

“In China in general people tend to be very obsessed with food, but in Sichuan there is a sense they have something marvellous here,” says Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

Sichuan food is renowned for its intense flavours – in particular a sensation called ma la (“numbing spicy”) – thanks to the liberal use of chilli peppers, Sichuan peppercorn, bean paste and garlic. Most Westerners are familiar with versions of classic Sichuanese fare like kungpao chicken, which Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, claims to adore. When she visited Chengdu in July, she even learned how to make it from a local chef (see WiC245).

Sichuanese food has been gaining in popularity. In fact, a survey conducted by Tsinghua University showed that it had become the most popular cuisine in the country. Just over half of the survey ranked it first, followed by food from Hunan, Shandong and Guangdong.

Why? Sina, a news portal, says that health experts think that spicy foods boost production of feel-good hormones like serotonin, which may help to ease tension and depression.

“Sichuan food has become a bigger part of the Chinese diet now than ever before. One of the reasons behind this is that our lives are more stressful than ever before: unstable job prospects, high property prices and poor air quality… Under these circumstances, Sichuan food has become our form of release, we are hoping that numbing our taste buds will help combat the stress of reality,” it muses.

But 21CN Business Herald reckons that the sheer size of Sichuan is another reason for the popularity of its cuisine. It boasts one of the highest populations in the country (80.5 million) and a large number of Sichuanese leave the province as migrant workers. This creates a business opportunity for Sichuan food outside of its home base, with Sichuanese restaurants spreading across different parts of the country to cater to these homesick workers.

There may be other commercial reasons driving the recent ‘Sichuan wave’ too. Profit margins for its restaurants tend to be higher than other cuisines because Sichuan food is protein-heavy and famous dishes like water-boiled fish and twice-cooked pork allow restaurants to charge more.

The heavily-seasoned cooking methods sometimes render the quality of the meat or fish less important too. “The cauldrons of oil, chilli and spices help mask the freshness of the ingredients, thereby reducing their costs. Moreover, the dried chillis make storage and transportation a lot more convenient and budget-friendly. That has also facilitated the growth of all the Sichuan restaurant chains around the country,” Sina suggests.

Perhaps that explains why Cantonese cuisine, which originates from Guangdong province, trails Sichuanese in the rankings. Cantonese cooking places a great deal of emphasis on the freshness of the ingredients and some of its most famous dishes like steamed fish or white-cut chicken (the chicken is first soaked in saltwater and then steamed) hardly use any spices. Instead, the focus is on bringing out the natural flavour of the vegetables and meats.

As a result, Cantonese cuisine can be less affordable for many potential diners, especially for those outside its home province.

“Because the freshness of the ingredients is such an integral part of the cuisine, once it leaves the province the price almost doubles. Cantonese food becomes a luxury for most people outside of Guangdong,” says 21CN.

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