It could have been my own biases, but when I exited the Chengdu Airport after two hours in a sterile jet plane, I swore I could smell peppercorns and chili peppers in the air. So immediately after putting my bag down in the hotel, I booked it to the closest hot pot restaurant and indulged in a bubbly, deep crimson broth of actual peppercorns and chili peppers.
I ate until sweat beads formed on my face and my tongue began to burn. But I was happy and full, having confirmed my assumption that I had indeed arrived in the land of spicy food.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a landlocked province in China’s southwest that has become synonymous with chili-laced dishes.
The love of heat is often attributed to the weather. It’s hot and humid in Sichuan. The Chinese believe spicy food induces sweat, which creates a cooling effect.
Peppercorns must be plucked, one by one, from an extremely thorny tree.
In Sichuan cooking, there are two types of peppercorns: green and red. The red one is the most common one and has a savory, umami fragrance. The green type is seldom found in the West, but is prized throughout China for its distinct floral and sour taste. A good bite into either will generate a mild tingling sensation in the mouth thanks to a molecule named hydroxy-alpha sanshool.
But what most people don’t know is that most of the chili peppers and peppercorns used in Sichuan don’t actually come from there anymore.
Chili peppers are relatively new to China. They came over in the 17th century via Portuguese maritime trade routes. They caught on quickly and were especially embraced by humid, southwest provinces like Hunan and Sichuan. Locals started growing it fervently, even breeding their own varieties.
Today though, Sichuan produces less than 10 percent of their dried chilis, and only 50 percent of their fresh chilis. Most of the chili peppers in China actually come from other provinces like Gansu, Guizhou, Henan, Yunnan, and Xinjiang.
Sichuan’s main peppercorn-producing area, Hanyuan, retains its reputation for some top-notch quality crop. But more broadly, peppercorns have been today relegated to secondary crop status in the region—instead, fruit farming is the main revenue-earner.
Farmers say peppercorn harvesting is really painstaking. The crops must be plucked, one by one, from an extremely thorny tree. And as Sichuan develops economically, it's become cheaper to import peppercorns from provinces with cheaper labor, and focus on producing more lucrative and easier to harvest crops like peaches, pears, and apples.
Still, it hasn’t made Sichuan food any less spicy, nor any less sought after.
Next time you're there, check out the must-eats on any spice hunter's list: mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, wontons covered in chili oil, and spicy hot pot in a bloody red soup. River fish served in a oily broth of peppers, noodles soaked in fiery sesame sauce. Soft tofu cubed and folded with spicy fermented bean paste sauce.
Nothing else is quite like it.