What is Sichuan cuisine and what does it taste like?
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Sichuan means ‘four rivers’ in Chinese. It’s a rich and fertile province in southwest China famous for its forests, misty mountains, and giant pandas. The area’s climate oscillates between wet monsoon winters and intense summer sun, which benefits the development of lots of plants used in cooking.
Sichuan cuisine is known for its spicy, aromatic and rich chilli flavours, and is one of the most characteristic regional cuisines in China.
The capital, Chengdu, is where the Sichuan style originated from. In 2010, Chengdu became the second UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Not only is it known historically as a food city, it’s the birthplace of many food traditions.
Sichuan cuisine is based on seven basic flavours: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, pungent and aromatic.
What is a Sichuan peppercorn?
Dishes in Sichuan wouldn’t be the same without the use of the Sichuan peppercorn. It’s an aromatic spice that isn’t actually a pepper at all – the peppercorns are actually the pinkish-red outer husks of the prickly ash shrub, which is part of the citrus family.
Their fragrance is quite floral, but it’s the sensation you get from eating them that’s the biggest surprise, and what they’re most famous for. Sichuan peppercorns cause a strange numbing, buzzy feeling around the mouth. It’s almost like the sensation you get from an anaesthetic injection at the dentist. On eating a dish with Sichuan peppercorns in, the first taste is a touch of bitterness, followed by that characteristic numbing heat, and finished with a bit of citrus.
Sichuan cooking often also uses chilies, and it’s thought the numbing sensation allows you to cope with the heat from the chili.
Five Spice powder is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. However in the UK, it’s not often you get a good quality Sichuan peppercorn, or experience the strange numbing joy of eating them.
That’s where Méline’s comes in. Their products use chilies and peppercorns from China, in provinces that don’t use chemical treatments to grow plants.
The company was founded by Méline, a Chinese art student, and Thomas, a chef who has worked in some of the best restaurants in the world. Méline’s currently have two products: Chinese Sauce and Chilli Sauce.
The Chinese Sauce has a rich and creamy texture with a sweet and sour note that’s incredibly moreish. That develops into sesame flavours and a delicate heat.
The Chilli Sauce packs more of a punch, with a long, complex flavour profile. It starts with aromatic ginger, garlic, onion and sesame, which progresses into cinnamon, star anise, coriander and clove, which give a spicy warmth. Then you get the Sichuan peppercorn at the front of your mouth, and the chili heat at the back. It’s a deep heat which lasts 40-50 seconds, but it’s not aggressive.