Szechuan is One of China's Great Cuisines
Since I know someone from the Szechuan Province of China, we occasionally go to a restaurant that serves this regional cuisine. This food is much different from the usual American-Chinese fare found throughout the United States.
For one, it ranges from mild to outrageously spicy. It can even be too hot for someone who grew up eating these five-alarm dishes, if they no longer used to the liberal use of red chili flakes, chili peppers and hot chili oil.
But heat is only one trait of Szechuan food. This province lies in the Southwest of China. It's terrain is highly varied, just as the recipes that spring from this region. There are steamy subtropical parts in the southern extreme of Szechuan. There are also cooler mountains and fertile plains. Because it has great beauty and abundant natural resources, some people call it the "heavenly country."
As you would expect, there are a wide variety of ingredients for local Szechaun chefs to pull from. At a typical feast, you'll find chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp and a lot of vegetables. It's attractively prepared and served family style, often on a rotating tray set on the banquet table.
Szechuan Province is also home to the endangered panda, which subsist largely on bamboo plants.
The Beautiful Szechuan Province
The recipes from Szechaun (also spelled Sichuan) are a reflection of its bountiful land. In the east is the Sichuan Basin, in which the land is highly fertile. There are a lot of farms, as well as rice paddies. Throughout Szechaun, there are rivers and magnificent gorges. The Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world, flows through the province.
The mountainous west is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Some parts of this region have four seasons characteristic of New England and parts of Japan. In Songpan County, located in Szechuan's northwest, is the Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area. This nature preserve, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Rich calcium deposits have colored part of the landscape a beautiful golden hue, creating beautiful patterns when seen from a distance.
Szechuan is one of China's largest provinces, with 187,000 square miles of land area. More than 80 million people live in the province, whose capital is Chengdu, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 14 million, including its suburbs.
Szechuan cuisine is a medley of flavors. You'll fine hot and spicy, of course, as well as salty, sweet and bitter. The food will differ, depending upon whether it is a casual lunch, or a feast prepared for guests. Since we usually dine out in a very authentic Szechuan restaurant, on a special occasion, I am most familiar with banquet-style food, which is served with a flourish.
There is a special type of peppercorn known as a Sichuan pepper. Garlic is used relatively heavily. As far as individual dishes, you'll find everything from the more healthful typical Chinese stir fry, to the spicy and deep fried breaded shrimp.
Because the restaurant we dined at caters to American guests, as well as Szechaun natives, you can expect the staple fried chicken fingers and pork spare ribs. We were told chicken fingers are generally not served in China. This is a purely American invention.
One very authentic dish is "dandan noodles." These are rice noodles covered with a red-colored soup base of pork, scallions and hot chili oil.
What Our Party Usually Orders
However, very mild dishes are served as breaks to the spicier entrees. Or, if you are not fond of the spicier recipes, a good Szechuan restaurant will have plenty of other choices. Since we dine out in a group, none of the most highly spiced dishes are usually included.
But that's the beauty of Szechuan cuisine. There's something for everyone. Some of the more moderately spiced dishes include lemon chicken. This was breaded and fried chicken breasts, with a thick lemon-based sauce. Slices of fresh lemon were artfully arranged on top. This was served on a bed of lettuce.
There was also a stir fry pork dish with thin slices of pork stir fried with strips of julienne vegetables and large black fan-shaped mushrooms. Our host told us these mushrooms are considered health food.
My favorite meal at our last banquet was a hearty beef dish with mushrooms and vegetables. It was heavy on the Szechuan pepper, a distinct flavor in this type of Southwestern Chinese cuisine.