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.