13 Popular Szechuan Flavor Profiles: A Guide
Sichuan food is an emerging cuisine that originates from the Sichuan Province in southwest China that has a long history of cultural influences and food flavor combinations. The region is infamously known for its extremely spicy food and giant pandas. Sichuan translates to “four rivers'' in Chinese, to refer to the four rivers that run through the province, and the name is also romanized as Szechuan or Szechwan.
Diving into a bit of history, where did all this heat and spice come from? Back in the days of the three kingdoms, the Sichuan people enjoyed consuming sweet food. During the Jin Dynasty, Sichuan foods became more pungent as people added ginger, onions, chives and mustard into food. At this time, there wasn’t much spiciness in Sichuan cuisine - boiled pork belly with mashed garlic (蒜泥白肉), which holds the traditional Sichuan flavor, is still a staple dish in Sichuan cuisine today. At only around the 16th century, hot peppers were introduced to China via the Silk Road, which is when the Sichuan people began to use hot peppers in their daily cooking.
The geography and climate of Sichuan contributed a lot to the popularity of hot peppers. With the mountains in the Sichuan province, the unique terrain creates high water content in the air, and the area is humid and damp in the winter, while notoriously hot in the summer. Hence, people tend to eat hot peppers and peppercorns to counteract the humid weather. Before hot peppers were brought to the area, ginger and other spices played a similar role.
Today, Sichuan foods consist of numerous notable bold flavors, particularly the unique Sichuan pepper, and other spice and pungency from the generous usage of heavy garlic, star anise, ginger, and chili peppers. And each dish has its own unique taste and flavor.
As shared by the brand Fly by Jing, Sichuan has a very large flavor profile - more than just the heat it's known for. Chefs often use Sichuan flavors to enhance other sauces or seasonings and concoct more balanced, harmonious flavor profiles. There are too many flavors in Sichuan cuisine to note all of them here, so we’ll just introduce 13 with you today:
First up has to be the childhood at-home flavor. Known as jiachang wei (家常味) in Mandarin, the Home-Style Flavor is infused with all the traditional at-home tastes that make Sichuan cooking so beloved and enjoyed by Sichuan families. Many of these Sichuan dishes, such as twice-cooked pork (rui guo rou 回鍋肉) and homestyle tofu (jia chang dou fu 家常豆腐), involve adding in ingredients like fermented black beans and soy sauce. Sweet and sour ingredients (like pickled chilis and vinegar) are commonly used to balance out the flavors in home-style Sichuan cuisine.
Fish Fragrance Flavor
It’s not uncommon for Chinese cuisines to create flavors with seafood seasonings and bases, but Sichuan has unique fish dishes too. For the Fish Fragrant flavor (yuxiang wei 鱼香味), key players of classic fish dish ingredients include pickled red chilis, ginger, garlic, and scallions, but with its own Sichuan twist. Popular dishes employing this sweet, sour and piquant sauce include yu xiang qie (fish fragrant eggplant) and yu xiang rou si (fish fragrant pork slivers).
The name Strange Flavor (guaiwei 怪味) comes from the complex and interesting flavor combination. It is usual for Chinese cuisine dishes to blend a variety of flavors, but with Strange Flavor dishes, there is not just one single distinct flavor that sticks out. Instead, there are usually equal amounts of sweet, spicy, umami, and salty flavors that create some well-loved dishes, such as the bang bang chicken and Sichuan sesame noodles with strange sauce.
Red Oil Flavor
Chili oil is one of the most famous ingredients in Sichuan and Chinese food cooking. With red oil flavor dishes, you’ll combine chili oil with balancing ingredients like sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar for the perfect blend of umami, spice, sweetness, and salt.
Numbing and Hot Flavor
It’s no surprise that Sichuan cuisine has hot dishes. The combination of Sichuan peppercorns (ma) and dried chilies (la), hence the name “Numbing and Hot flavor” (mala wei 麻辣味), may be the most well known Sichuan flavor. It embraces the hot chilis and peppers that Sichuan is most famous for, but it goes beyond the burn. Although the Sichuan pepper (a berry of the prickly ash tree) is called a pepper, it has lemony notes and produces a tingling, buzzing, and numbing sensation that is something like a mild electrical current on the tongue. With numbing and hot flavors, you’ll enjoy a combination of spice with salt, sour, and sweetness.
Garlic Paste Flavor
Garlic is used to balance a lot of the more intense flavors in Sichuan cooking. In the garlic paste flavor (suanni wei 蒜泥味), garlic leads the overall taste but it is also simmered with ingredients like chili oil, sesame oil, brown sugar, and classic Chinese spices combined with soy sauce. While still spicy, the degree of spice among garlic paste flavor dishes are much more subtle compared to other Sichuan dishes. Cold pork in hot and garlicky sauce is a popular dish that provides this garlic paste flavor.
Scorched Chili Flavor
As the name would indicate, scorched chili flavors (hula wei 糊辣味), are achieved by finding that perfect balance of heat and chilis. Dried chilis are cooked in oil, along with Sichuan peppers, and sometimes mixed with other ingredients like ginger, garlic, and scallions. It’s especially important not to allow the chilis to burn, so finding the right heat to cook the chilis is key. Sichuan spicy cucumber salad takes its flavor from scorched chili.
Tangerine Peel Flavor
It’s hard not to love a little sweetness. Tangerine Peel flavor (chenpi wei 陈皮味), combines the classic chilis of Sichuan dishes with just a little bit of dried tangerine peel to get the perfect balance without any bitterness. Cold meat dishes commonly utilize tangerine peel flavor.
Sweet Fragrant Flavor
Sugar, juice, and fruit are used to round out sweet fragrant flavor (tianxiang wei 甜香味) dishes. The hot and sweet dishes that are imbued with this flavor profile can be made in many different ways, like stir-frying and simmering.
Sichuan Pepper and Salt Flavor
Sichuan pepper and salt flavor (jiaoyan wei 椒盐味) is excellent for dipping both sweet and savory foods, like vegetables and pastries. The fragrance is essential, so you want to use fresh peppers and cook close to serving.
Sour and Hot Flavor
The sour and hot flavor profile is beloved for a reason. There are many, many variations of sour and hot flavor (suanla wei 酸辣味) dishes. They are often referred to as “hot and sour” recipes in American Chinese food, but even with the addition or substitution of Sichuan peppers, these dishes are really all about the sour and delicious bite.
Fragrant Fermented Sauce Flavor
Fragrant fermented sauce flavor (jiangxiang wei 酱香味) combines the best sweet flour sauce with extra salt and sweet for a fermented and wonderful flavor profile. Common dishes with the fragrant fermented sauce flavors can be pork or tofu stir fry.
Five Spice Flavor
The five spice shows up very often in Chinese cooking—and for good reason. Five spice flavor (wuxiang wei 五香味) is a mix of spices (sometimes more or less than five), which often includes star anise and Sichuan pepper. It may be served with a wide variety of foods, including meat, eggs, and tofu. It can be simmered, mixed with chilies, braised, steamed, and more.
Popular Sichuan Foods
After learning about all these Sichuan flavors, what Sichuan foods should you try next? Here are our hot takes on the current popular and yummy Sichuan dishes:
Mala Hot Pot (mala huoguo 麻辣火锅)
This style of hotpot can be labeled as the most famous type of Chinese hotpot right now, and it is one of the most representative dishes of Sichuan cuisine. It’s most famous for its numbing and spicy taste, known as “mala”.
Sichuan-style Mapo Tofu (mapo doufu 麻婆豆腐)
Translated literally as "pock-marked grandmother's tofu," its totally apocryphal origin story is identical to a half dozen other food origins: it starts with hungry crowds and a cook with few ingredients but plenty of creativity. The result is an inexpensive stew that uses simple ingredients—soft tofu, ground meat (beef or pork), fermented chili bean paste, a handful of Sichuan peppercorns, and plenty of red-hot chili oil—to create simple, soul-satisfying fare.
Sichuan-style Dan Dan Noodles (dandan mian 担担面) - Wheat Noodles with Pork, Chili, Garlic, and Vinegar
Directly translated as “bouncy noodles”, dan dan noodles have gotten quite popular in the West for its texture and deliciously paired condiments. If you ever walk by the many street food markets in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan Province) and come across the dan dan noodle vendors, you’ll see piles of fresh noodles, along with individual bowls of each condiment: black vinegar, soy sauce, dried chiles, sugar, salt, MSG, ground Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ground peanuts, chopped scallions, chopped pickled mustard root, a vat of red chile oil, and sometimes even ground pork from time to time. This dish is really all about the noodles, which are stretchy, bouncy, and fresh!
Double-Cooked Pork Belly (huigou rou 回锅肉)
Tender yet crispy pork slices flavoured with fermented seasonings, twice cooked pork is a mouth-watering Chinese delicacy and is very likely one of the top 3 most popular dishes of Sichuan cuisine. The Chinese name of this classic dish literally means “the meat (it refers to pork belly) that returned to the wok”. It explains the special two-step cooking method which gives the dish a delicious, complex texture. Firstly, a chunky piece of pork belly is simmered in water then cut into thin slices. Secondly, the cooked pork returns to a wok to be stir-fried with vegetables and seasoned with condiments.
Gongbao Jiding (Diced Chicken With Peanuts and Dried Chiles)
As romanized as Kung Pao Chicken, this dish is a spicy, stir-fried classic Sichuan-originated dish made with cubes of chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers. However, the actual Sichuan version of this dish doesn’t use diced celery and is dominated by a honey-like sweetness, rather than chili heat, surprisingly.