It is often said that the fire in Szechuan cuisine evolved to counteract the chang chi (jungle dampness) of the province's sultry, hot summers. But the culinary heritage is much more than hot chili pods per se. The mountain-ringed Red Basin in western China is blessed with fertile soil watered by an irrigation system laid down 2,000 years ago to supplement water from the four tributaries (szechuan) of the Yangtze River. Riverine and land fecundity are manifested in multiple crops of rice, corn, millet potatoes, beans, peas, and bamboo. There's abundant game, chickens, pigs, and oxen. Szechuan cooking owes its characteristic spicy flavors to Buddhist missionaries who made their way to the province from Burma, Thailand and India in the first century A.D. They also implanted their influences in the southern neighboring province of Yunnan, bringing and cultivating numerous spices and herbs that laid a spicy aromatic culinary foundation.
Cooking techniques in Szechuan are remarkable for their preservative promise; salted, dried, smoked, pickled, and spiced meats, seafood, and vegetables are lavished with the prized Szechuan chili peppers and peppercorns. Garlic, ginger, and onions also figure dominantly, creating a delicious amalgam of salty, sour, bitter, fragrant, and spicy flavors. Tea leaves and camphor wood are used to smoke meats. Nature has worked on a grand scale in Szechuan shaping the landscape amid winding rows of rice terraces, providing the blessing of an eleven-month growing season to create one of the most distinctive cuisines in the world. Many Szechuan dishes have become universally known—hot-and-sour soup, sweet corn soup, and chicken and chili peppers, just to name a few.
With a whole fish scored and bathed in hot sauce, this makes a grand presentation, especially for festive occasions. Ideal fish to use are whole mullet, bream, bass, or grouper. Fish fillets, however, are much easier to handle and fry, unless you have a very large wok.
If using whole fish, clean and gut it. Make several diagonal cuts across both sides of body and marinate in ginger, green onion, peppercorns, wine, sugar, and soy sauce for at least half an hour. Drain and pat dry. In a large wok, deep fry until crisp. Remove and keep warm. Blend the sesame oil with marinade and bring to a gentle boil. Pour over fish and serve with slices of lemon.
This is a good stand-by dish and one that is universally cooked throughout China. The Szechuan recipe calls for a little braising which results in a more moist dish. Substitute green peppers with bamboo shoots or water chestnuts, if you prefer, as the basic flavors remain unchanged.
In a wok or skillet, heat oil and fry garlic for 1 minute until light brown. Add chicken pieces and water and braise or fry over high heat until almost dry. Add seasonings and stir rapidly to blend all flavors. Sprinkle a little more water on if mixture is too dry. Cook for 2 minutes and add diced green peppers. Toss quickly to preserve crispness of peppers, and serve hot.
Introduction and recipes from:
A Little Szechuan Cookbook
by Terry Tan
Illustrated by Sherri Tay
(Reprinted with Permission.)
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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This page modified January 2007
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