Why is Sichuan food so spicy? A primer on the world’s most mouth-numbing cuisine

Dec 06, 2019

The famously spicy food of Sichuan has taken the world by storm. But how did people in the region develop such a strong taste for mala 麻辣, or mouth-numbingly spicy, flavors? Some say it has to do with the climate.

Hot pot, spicy noodles, and mapo tofu—all of these dishes come from the southwestern corner of China, a region known for its love of spice.

In recent years, Sichuan cuisine has taken off worldwide, with hot pot chains entering the restaurant scenes of London, New York, and Paris.

(Read more: Xiaolongkan, China’s hottest hot pot chain, plans New York City debut)

The two epicenters of Sichuan cuisine are Chengdu, the province’s capital, and Chongqing, a megacity that’s politically separate from Sichuan but shares the same culture.

Sichuan and Chongqing relative to China.
Sichuan and Chongqing relative to China. / Photo: Ray Ngan

There’s a friendly rivalry between the two cities over who represents Sichuan cuisine.

“Sichuan has a large population,” says Du Bin, owner of Chengdu Impression, a global chain of upscale Sichuan restaurants. “Before we split with Chongqing, we had more than 100 million people. There’s a joke that one out of every 50 people in the world eats Sichuan food.”

(Read more: Szechuan or Sichuan? How to spell the Chinese province’s name)

What Sichuan and Chongqing have in common is their palate for mouth-numbingly spicy food. The distinct flavor profile here is mala 麻辣. Ma means numbing, and la means spicy.

The numbing sensation comes from Sichuan peppercorn, while the spicy heat comes from chili peppers.
The numbing sensation comes from Sichuan peppercorn, while the spicy heat comes from chili peppers. / Photo: Ray Ngan

The tingling sensation is made possible by native Sichuan peppercorns, which have a citrusy buzz. Combine that with chili peppers, which were brought over to China by Portuguese traders from South America in the 17th century, and you get a powerful flavor combination that jolts the senses.

(Read more: Why Sichuan peppercorns in the U.S. aren’t as good as they could be)

Locals will tell you that the reason they eat such punishingly spicy food is because of the climate.

“Sichuan sits in a basin, so it gets quite humid,” Du says. “There’s a saying that the food we eat helps draw out extra moisture from the body.”

Pickled vegetables are a popular appetizer in Sichuan.
Pickled vegetables are a popular appetizer in Sichuan. / Photo: Baidu

Sichuan food is also heavy on salt because it was traditionally a center of salt production in China. At one point, one city in Sichuan, Zigong, supplied a third of the salt consumed in the country.

(Read more: Inside the spice rack of a Chinese chef)

As a result, salt is used heavily in Sichuan cuisine for preservation. Fermented vegetables are a popular appetizer.

Also common are fermented hot sauces like pixian douban 郫县豆瓣, which is made with aged broad beans and chili.

Pixian douban is a popular condiment in Sichuan cuisine.
Pixian douban is a popular condiment in Sichuan cuisine. / Photo: Ray Ngan

These pungent flavors are a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine, and they also lend themselves to another regional export: spicy hot pot.

A communal form of eating where a group of people sit around a simmering broth and dip ingredients into a cauldron of piping red broth, hot pot is popular throughout China, but it’s especially revered in the Sichuan region.

(Read more: A guide to all the Chinese hot pot styles)

Chongqing claims to be the capital of hot pot, where there are over 10,000 shops dedicated to the dish.

Tripe and other types of offal are especially beloved as hot pot ingredients, mostly because they’re cheap.

Goose intestines at a hot pot market in Chongqing.
Goose intestines at a hot pot market in Chongqing. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

In Chongqing, there are whole markets dedicated to selling things for hot pot restaurants. They open late at night—when hot pot restaurants close—and run until the early morning, when the restaurateurs go back to their business.

Leafy greens are another staple of the hot pot table, and this region is full of them, thanks to an irrigation system built over 2,000 years ago that supplies water to farms all over the province.

“This is a land of plenty,” Du says.

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