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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

TASTE
Sichuan sizzle

By Tim Johnson
Knight Ridder News Service

One bite into the chili-strewn dish known as Water Boiled Fish, and your mouth explodes. Your forehead erupts in beads of sweat, eyes water, the nose runs, and the tongue and lips go prickly.

Sichuan (aka Szechuan) food isn't just hot and spicy. Some of it is numbing.

Hardly anywhere else in China does one encounter such innocent-looking but searing food. Nor can one find a people who eat blisteringly hot food with such gusto.

"Our endurance for spicy food is higher than yours," a lunch companion, poet Guan Wuzhao, said out of compassion for a wincing visitor during a culinary visit to this provincial capital.

Sichuan, a huge province nearly the size of France on the eastern flanks of the Himalayas, is home to one of China's great regional cuisines. Sichuan food is renowned worldwide for its use of hot chilies and anesthetizing Sichuan peppercorns, which until last year had been banned for import into the United States for more than three decades. At its most piquant, Sichuan food is for the brave and those willing to perspire.

Locals in the province offer a number of explanations for why Sichuan dishes contain such an array of hot and unusual flavors. Invariably, they describe the spicy foods as good for their constitutions.

"The climate of Sichuan is cold and humid, and there is not much sunshine. The human body naturally desires something that will warm it up. If you eat hot pepper frequently, it's good for your health," explained Li Gaoxia, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.

According to Li, the chilies and peppers also help salivation and digestion, fight infection and dilate the blood vessels.

"That's why it makes you red," Li said, noting the rosy cast of a foreigner not yet fully acclimated to the Sichuan palate.

But heat isn't Sichuan food's only characteristic: Experts in the province point out that only a quarter of traditional Sichuan dishes provide a nuclear kick. Instead, Sichuan partisans take pride in the cuisine's use of multiple pungent flavors at once, giving rise to such items as "fish-tasting spicy" dishes and the aptly named "strange-flavor" dishes, which mix five to seven seasonings.

Discerning diners can pick out all five flavors in "strange-tasting shredded chicken" or other "strange-tasting" dishes, which are unlike anything in Western cookbooks.

Colorful names offer half the delight in consuming Sichuan cuisine. One is known as Ants Climbing Trees. It is composed of bean thread noodles, minced pork seasoned with soy sauce, and, naturally, numbing peppercorns.

There's also Old Tofu Crab and Stewed Pig Blood Curd, as well as Three Gorges Stones Crispy Intestines and Pockmarked Lady's Bean Curd. One can hardly shy away from eating organ meat in Sichuan. One dish was made from pigs' ears.

The hot chili peppers in Sichuan dishes are large red fruits that have a citruslike flavor after the initial searing sensation. They're also used elsewhere in China.

In contrast, the "numbing" small Sichuan peppercorns produce a biting, tickling taste that's an essential sensation for Sichuan cooking. They numb the lips and tongue, in fact. When the chilies and peppercorns are combined, the hot-and-numbing sensation isn't easily forgotten.

Locals say some discomfort is to be expected. At the end of one Sichuan meal, a waitress inquired how a foreigner liked the food. Told that it was, er, special, she offered an apt summation.

"The consuming of Sichuan food is both painful and happy together!" she said, trotting off.

This fiery Sichuan classic very familiar to people in Hawai'i, though perhaps in a milder form is named for the pockmarked (po) wife (ma) who supposedly invented it at her husband's restaurant.

MA-PO TOFU

Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup chicken broth

  • 2 tablespoons hot bean paste*

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

  • Kosher salt

  • 1 pound regular or soft (not silken) tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1 1/2-2 tablespoons corn, peanut or canola oil

  • 1/2 pound ground pork shoulder (preferably 75 percent lean)

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely minced peeled ginger

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

  • 1 1/2-2 teaspoons Japanese sesame oil

  • 1/2-1 teaspoon toasted sansho powder** or ground sichuan peppercorns

  • 3 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions

    Accompaniment: steamed rice

    To make the sauce: Stir together broth, bean paste, soy sauce and kosher salt. Set aside.

    To poach the tofu: Slide tofu into a saucepan of simmering water and keep at a bare simmer while stir-frying rest of the dish.

    To stir-fry the pork: Heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat then add 1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil, swirling to coat. Add pork and stir-fry, breaking up lumps and adding remaining 1/2 tablespoon corn oil if meat sticks, until no longer pink. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry over moderate heat until very fragrant, about 2 minutes.

    To finish the stir-fry: Stir reserved sauce, then add to pork and bring to a simmer. Drain tofu in a large sieve and slide into sauce, stirring gently.

    Stir cornstarch mixture and add to stir-fry. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, and cook until thickened and glossy, about 15 seconds.

    Turn off heat and sprinkle with sesame oil, sansho powder, to taste, and 2 tablespoons scallion. Stir once or twice, then serve sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon scallion.

    Makes 4 servings.

  • Per serving: 330 calories, 25 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 21 g protein

    * Sichuan hot bean paste is known by many other names including chili bean paste, chili bean sauce and bean paste with chili. By whatever name, this reddish-brown sauce is made from fermented soybeans and very hot chilies. You might try combining bean sauce with Sriracha hot chili sauce, that all-purpose fiery Asian condiment.

    ** Sansho powder, made from the ground berries of the prickly ash tree, is peppery and lemony in flavor. Presumably it was used as a substitute when Sichuan pepper was unavailable in the U.S. Readily available in Hawai'i, or at www.gourmetsleuth.com.