Many years ago, I made a Sichuan dish involving noodles, shrimp, and a handful of whole dried chile peppers. That dinner party did not go well. I’m not sure if I used the wrong kind of chiles, missed the step about de-seeding them, or both. But one bite had every guest lunging for the water pitcher to douse their blistered tongues as my face burned with embarrassment.
I’ve felt skittish about attempting this cuisine at home ever since. Then I started reading “The Food of Sichuan” (W.W. Norton, $40), the expanded and updated edition of Fuchsia Dunlop’s 2001 classic, “Land of Plenty.” The London-based author was the first foreigner to attend the prestigious Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in the capital city of Chengdu and is now considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject. Her sensual descriptions in this gorgeous new volume are as mesmerizing as its photos of misty landscapes, vibrant street life and elegantly simple dishes.
Fieriness, she writes, is the most distinguishing characteristic of Sichuan cuisine, and chiles figure into virtually every meal. But heat is only one component of the 23 “official” complex flavor combinations (numbing-and-hot, fragrant-boozy) and 56 cooking methods (dry-frying, clear-simmered) local chefs use to transform raw ingredients into banquets of contrasting tastes and textures. Daunting as it seems, Dunlop’s clear explanations make every recipe sound approachable.
Newly emboldened, I assembled a Sichuan menu for a company dinner following Dunlop’s recipes and advice. The proprietor at First Oriental Market in Decatur kindly steered me to the chile bean paste, the Chinkiang vinegar, and the chiles with the proper heat index for Dry-fried Chicken, which came together in the time it took the rice to cook. I rounded out the spread with equally simple Stir-fried Celery with Ground Pork; Three-sliver Salad (julienned carrots and kohlrabi, sliced scallions, bean-thread noodles) in Sweet-and-Sour Dressing; and Broccoli with Sesame Oil “to balance the riotous excitement of oil and spice.”
Relishing the pleasant tingling sensation on my lips and contentment of my guests, I was already plotting Mapo Tofu and Mr. Xie’s Dandan Noodles for my next Sichuan challenge.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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