Food

Inside the spice rack of a Chinese chef

Jul 31, 2018

One of the markers of Sichuan cuisine is how varied and complex the flavor profiles are. It’s not just “mala”—spicy and numbing; officially, there are more than two dozen, stretching to include what the Sichuanese term “strange flavor”, an intriguing balance of sweet, savoury, spicy, nutty and numbing.

It speaks to the ingenuity of Sichuan chefs that almost all of these flavor profiles can be achieved with just a few simple ingredients. For the past two years, I’ve been incorporating these flavors at my private kitchen in Shanghai, as well as at pop-ups in cities around the world. These are the essential building blocks in my pantry.

Erjingtiao

Of all the varieties of chilis in Sichuan, erjingtiao is undeniably the favourite for locals. It is prized for its intense fragrance, mild heat and brilliant color that perfectly complement most dishes in the cuisine.

Bright red, long and slim erjingtiao peppers.
Bright red, long and slim erjingtiao peppers. / Photo: Jenny Gao

When freshly harvested, they can be cooked in stir fries or preserved in dedicated pickling crocks. Pickled chilies lend a delicious acidity to dishes like “fish fragrant” eggplant, a flavor profile characterized by a pungent and sour heat.

Erjingtiao chilis are also fermented alongside fava beans to create arguably the most famous condiment from Sichuan, doubanjiang (more on that below). When they’re dried they are often finely ground and combined with aromatics to make incredibly fragrant chili oil, a staple in every family’s home.  

Rapeseed oil

The bright yellow flowers of the Rapeseed plant.
The bright yellow flowers of the Rapeseed plant. / Photo: Jenny Gao

Rapeseed oil is widely cultivated and used in Sichuan cooking for its light, nutty flavour and many health benefits, being high in Vitamin E and Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.

Because of its high smoke point, rapeseed oil is the most common oil used for wok frying and is also the de facto ingredient in chili and Sichuan pepper oils.

Rapeseed oil ranges in quality and purity; most commercially available versions are mixed with soybean oil for a lighter taste and color, while pure rapeseed oil is almost opaque in its darkness, and can be an acquired taste.

Sichuan pepper

Sichuan peppercorn.
Sichuan peppercorn. / Photo: Jenny Gao

An ancient Chinese spice that has been cultivated for thousands of years, Sichuan pepper is responsible for the cuisine’s famous tongue-tingling sensation.

There are dozens of varieties of huajiao in China, but they fall broadly under two categories, red and green. Red ones are dried before they’re sold, intensely numbing with a concentrated, heady fragrance, while green ones are usually used fresh, lending a more citrusy brightness to fish and seafood dishes.

The most famous variety, called Gongjiao, is grown in Hanyuan county, and is so prized for its many medicinal and culinary uses that it was once offered as a tribute to the emperor. Thrown whole into long braises and stews or roasted and ground to top iconic dishes like mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork, just-harvested gongjiao can be transformational.  

Doubanjiang (fermented fava bean paste)

Often called the soul of Sichuan cooking, doubanjiang, or fermented fava bean paste, is at the heart of many of the province’s signature dishes.

The best doubanjiang comes from a county called Pixian just outside of Chengdu. Here, factories have been fermenting their paste for hundreds of years, traditionally in large clay pots that are left out under the sun and mixed by hand daily, to evenly distribute its exposure to the elements.

Vats of doubanjiang fermenting.
Vats of doubanjiang fermenting. / Photo: Jenny Gao

Modernization has now replaced the clay pots with large 50m long troughs and manual mixing with mechanized tractors, but many factories still maintain a few traditional pots where they reserve the highest quality doubanjiang.

Some that are aged for up to 10 years and can fetch astronomical price tags. The longer they are aged, the darker and more complex in flavor they become. Younger doubanjiang are usually a more brilliantly red, due to the erjingtiao chilis mixed in. In my pantry, I usually keep both a five year and one year doubanjiang, and mix them together to achieve the optimal flavor and color balance.

Yacai (preserved mustard greens)

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Photo: Shutterstock

One of the slightly more obscure Sichuan pantry staples, yacai are preserved mustard greens of a special variety native to Sichuan.

Their involved production process consists of an initial salt fermentation, boiling down with brown sugar and other spices, followed by a second fermentation period. What results is a deeply concentrated flavor, savory with a mild sweetness, and a slightly crunchy texture.

They’re a key component to an authentic dan dan noodle—say no to any version without it! They're also what lends a satisfying umami to “dry fried” string beans and can be fried with ground pork and used as a topping for congee in the morning.