Dinner in Chengdu
Bang Bang Ji (Bang Bang Chicken)
This traditional cold chicken dish is fairly distinct from the peanut-ty version found on menus in Chinese American restaurants in the US. The name is attributed to the way the original street vendors would “bang bang” on the chicken with a wooden dowel or mallet to loosen it before shredding. The flavor profile of this dish is one of the most intricate and unique in Sichuan cooking - guaiwei, or “strange flavor.” It describes a flavor that is a perfectly balanced combination of salty, sweet, nutty, spicy, sour, fragrant, and numbing. The Sichuan peppercorn makes its first appearance here; it is the dried berry of the fagara shrub, and unrelated to white and black peppercorns (which are both the fruit of a flowering vine, processed differently). Sichuan pepper is not spicy in the way that chile peppers are spicy - instead, Sichuan pepper induces a numbing or tingling sensation, which foils the fiery spice of the chile oil in bang bang chicken. Sichuan pepper lends a floral and vaguely citrus-y aroma to dishes, in addition to the sharp taste that numbs the tongue and lips. Sesame, peanuts, and soy sauce contribute to the nuttiness, a small amount of sugar contributes to the sweetness, and rice-based black vinegar contributes to the sourness, rounding out a perfect harmony of guaiwei! (Contains gluten, peanuts, sesame, soy; no dairy.)
Liangban Huanggua (Smacked Cucumber in Garlicky Sauce)
Cucumber is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, and if you’ve ordered from us a few times, you might have noticed that cucumber salads are one of the most universal vegetable preparations in the world - cucumbers are easy and inexpensive to grow, incredibly versatile, and rarely (if ever) out of place on any menu. Smashing cucumber seems to be the “newest” way to prepare them, but in fact, it is an ancient Chinese preparation; the cucumbers provide a cooling contrast to the spicy flavors so prevalent in Sichuan cooking, and smashing them helps them to absorb the flavors of seasonings and sauces.. Cucumbers, though native to India, were integrated into Sichuan cuisine by around 200 BCE. The sauce, though it does also contain chile oil, sesame oil, and soy sauce, is heavy on garlic, which puts this dish into the flavor profile of suanni wei (garlic paste flavor). We’ve cooked up our own sweet, aromatic soy sauce for this salad, which accounts for all the other subtle flavors you might notice (including cardamom, anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and bay leaves!). (Contains gluten, soy, sesame; vegan, no dairy.)
Mala Niurou Gan (Numbing and Hot Dried Beef)
The name doesn’t leave much mystery to the flavor profile of this classic Sichuan snack; it is the most famous Sichuan combination of ma (numbing) and la (spicy). The beef is prepared using the zhashou method, whereby meat or fish is cooked in several steps (simmered in water, deep-fried in oil, and then simmered again in flavorful sauce) to give it a chewy texture and intense depth of flavor. Because the preparation involves so many steps, they are often the domain of the specialty street vendor, rather than the home cook. (Contains sesame, gluten; no dairy.)
Shanhu Xuelian (Coral-like Snow Lotus)
The lotus is a lovely aquatic plant that very closely resembles a water lily, with the main distinction being that the lotus flower and leaves rise above the water (rather than resting on the water, as for a water lily.) The rhizome of the lotus plant is edible, and when sliced into cross-sectional rounds, the hollows and membranes that run vertically reveal a beautiful design. The flavor is mild and starchy, and it is a common ingredient in Chinese cooking (and in Chinese medicine), where it takes on the flavors of different ingredients while lending a crunchy texture to a dish. For this light dish, the lotus slices are quickly blanched before being tossed in a sweet and sour ginger syrup. The name for this flavor profile is tangcu wei (sweet and sour). (Vegan, no gluten, no dairy.)
Jiangzhi Jiangdou (Green Beans in Ginger Sauce)
Ginger sauce is used as a light dressing for any number of cold dishes in Sichuan - from long Asian beans to snow peas, and even for chicken or rabbit. Crisp, blanched green beans are tossed in this dressing for a refreshingly bright complement to some of the spicy and rich dishes on the menu. Chinese cooking uses Chinese long beans more often than the green beans we’ve used here, but they have a very similar flavor and texture. (Contains sesame; vegan, no dairy)
Huiguo Larou (Sichuanese Bacon and Peppers)
Sichuanese bacon is pork belly that is salt-cured, then seasoned with Sichuan pepper, sweet flour sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves before being hung to dry. Many households (outside of big cities) still raise their own pig every year, feeding it household scraps, and then curing and smoking the meat themselves. The bacon is eaten alone as a snack, or added in small portions to other cooked dishes, where it contributes a deeply salty and savory flavor. One of the most famous Sichuan dishes is huiguo rou (twice-cooked pork), wherein uncured pork belly is first simmered, and then stir-fried with Chinese leeks; this preparation is a variation of that dish, but in this one, Sichuanese bacon is first steamed, and then stir-fried with a mix of spicy and mild peppers. (Contains gluten, soy; no dairy.)
Mapo Doufu (Mapo Tofu)
Mapo doufu is one of the most famous of Sichuan’s signature dishes, beloved all over China, and all over the world. Its flavor profile is mala - the numbing-and-hot peppercorn and chile combination. In this dish, though, there is the added savory component of doubanjiang, a fermented fava bean and chile paste that is unique to (and very common in) Sichuan cooking. It was first made in Pixian county, just outside of Chengdu, in a factory founded in 1666, and is still made in that factory - along with many others - in a process almost identical to the one established hundreds of years ago. Soybeans were first cultivated in China, and the Chinese have used the beans in a multitude of ways for the last 3000 years. It is one of the five sacred grains essential to Chinese civilization (along with millet, glutinous millet, wheat, and rice). Doufu (tofu) is not treated as a meat substitute in Chinese cooking, as it often is in Western cooking; instead, it is an important ingredient, and part of most people’s diets. Mapo tofu was first served by a smallpox-scarred old woman (mapo) in her namesake restaurant (Chen Xingshen Eating House) in the late 1800s. The dish grew so popular that she changed the name of the restaurant (to Chen MaPo Doufu), and you can still eat there today. (Contains gluten, soy, sesame; no dairy.)
Bai Mifan (Steamed White Rice)
While millet was the earliest known grain to be used in Chinese cooking (around 5000-7000 BCE), rice was firmly established as a staple crop in the south and west of China by 1000 BCE. The cultivation, harvest, preparation, and consumption of rice have dictated politics, economics, and cultural trends in China throughout history. Rice is at the center of every meal, especially in southern China. There are different kinds of rice cooked all over China, but in Sichuan, the rice tends to be long-grained, non-glutinous rice, which is not sticky and has a slight nutty flavor. (No gluten, vegan, no dairy.)
Suancai Jisi Tang (Chicken Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens)
Chinese culinary tradition does not feature much in the way of sweets, and dessert is not usually served as part of a meal. If anything, a meal might finish with a plate of fruit and a cup of tea. A light soup, though, is almost always part of every meal, either drunk throughout the meal, or as a finishing course for fine banquets. The soup is usually brothy and mildly seasoned, and used as a palate cleanser. Pickled mustard greens are a common ingredient in Sichuanese cooking, and give the soup a light green color and slightly sour flavor. (Contains egg, gluten; no dairy.)
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, but nothing goes with spicy dishes (of which there are plenty on this menu) than an ice cold beer. Fortunately, China is one of the oldest alcohol producing regions in the world, with evidence of beer-like drinks going back 9000 years (the Chinese were also the first to ferment grapes into wine, although they didn’t use vitis vinifera grapes). Modern beer culture, however, didn’t begin until the end of the eighteenth century when Polish, German, and Czech style breweries set up shop in Harbin. While global supply chain issues have made it hard to find certain imported beer, any Chinese (or Asian-style) lager would pair exceptionally with this menu, such as Tsingtao, Singha or Asahi.
Baijiu is a clear, fairly strong (30-60% ABV) spirit typically distilled from sorghum, rice, wheat, or barley depending on the region. Modern, systematic distillation likely began in the Han Dynasty in 200 BC. Typically it is served neat at room temperature for ceremonies, special occasions, and business events. It forms part of ritualistic (or otherwise) toasts made by the host in which everyone must drink to show respect. A wonderful version from Sichuan is available at A&L Wine Castle.
China has one of the world’s most ancient and complex civilizations, first revealed to the Western world when Marco Polo published the story of his travels through China in 1300 CE. China was an important participant in global trade prior to Marco Polo’s travels, sending spices, tea, silk, and pottery around the world on the overland Silk Roads, and then via the maritime Spice Routes, starting as early as 200 BCE. Of the many contributions that China has made to world culture, perhaps the most important is that of Chinese cuisine. There is, of course, no single “Chinese cuisine” - the food we are most familiar with in the West is that of Guangdong, as immigrants from the city of Canton comprised the majority of Chinese Gold Rush travelers to California in the 1800s (see our Dinner in Chinatown for more of this history).
Chinese cuisine is divided largely into four regional styles - northern, southern, eastern, and western, though some experts further divide culinary traditions into eight sub-regions. The northern region includes the major subdivision of Shandong cookery; the southern region includes Guangdong cookery (also sometimes referred to as Cantonese); the eastern region includes Fujian, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang cookeries; and the western region includes Sichuan and Hunan cookeries. There is, of course, overlap in ingredients and techniques, but the real distinctions are documented at length in a multitude of cookbooks and histories. The differences are attributable not only to climate and topography - they can be traced to political and cultural influences as well. This menu focuses on the culinary traditions of Sichuan Province in the west of China, and on the capital city of the province - the bustling metropolis of Chengdu.
Chengdu is located on the Chengdu Plain, which is sometimes called the Land of Abundance (or Country of Heaven) because of its dramatic mountains, rivers and forests. The subtropical climate and fertile soil of the plain combine to make this one of the most productive agricultural areas in China. The Chengdu Plain is home to the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation system, first constructed in 256 BCE, and still in use today. Along with the nearby historic temples of Mount Qingcheng (the birthplace of Chinese Taoism), the irrigation system was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Chengdu has remained an important city since its founding during the Qin Dynasty in the third century BCE; its agricultural prosperity (due, in large part, to the irrigation system) has bolstered the wealth and success of the region through the centuries (and also contributed to the great diversity of food in the area).
Today, Chengdu is China’s western hub of finance, transport, commerce, and technology. It is the seventh-largest city in China, with a population slightly over 9 million. It is a favorite destination for people wanting to sample Sichuan’s famous cuisine, and for tourists hoping for a close encounter with a giant panda. The Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is one of the most popular places in China to see giant pandas, and it hosted 9 million visitors in 2019. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - located slightly further outside of the city in the nearby mountains - were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2006.
The food of Sichuan is most famous for the flavor combination called mala - ma is the numbing sensation of the Sichuan peppercorn, and la is fiery spiciness of chile peppers . Mala is evident in such famous Sichuan dishes as mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, and hot pot. Though the food of Sichan is often singularly identified as spicy and numbing, there are many other important and intentional flavor combinations, including guai wei (strange flavor), jiachang wei (familiar or home-style flavor), tangcu wei (sweet and sour flavor), and suanni wei (garlic paste flavor). These precisely-named flavor combinations hint at the complexity and nuance of the cooking - though there are not generally very long cook times for most Chinese dishes, the ingredient lists are often lengthy and detailed. In Sichuan cookery alone, there are 56 official food preparation methods, ranging from stir-frying to pickling to steaming to freezing. A signature ingredient in Sichuan cooking is doubanjiang, a fermented fava bean and chile paste; chile oil, sesame (in paste, oil, and seed form), soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, star anise, and cinnamon also feature heavily in Sichuan dishes.
A Chinese meal consists of a primary starch (rice and rice noodles in the south and west, wheat noodles and bread in the north) and several secondary side dishes. The primary starch is prepared simply, without seasoning, while the secondary dishes have varying degrees of complexity, with the overarching goal of the entire menu being a harmonious combination of texture, flavor, color, and aroma. The dishes are all placed in the center of the table and enjoyed communally. Appetizers and dessert aren’t typically part of a Chinese meal, but we’ve included a few smaller cold dishes that are often enjoyed as part of lengdanbai - a summery Sichuan tradition of cold snacks and beer, often eaten in lieu of or after dinner. In traditional Chinese medicine, eating a spicy meal will help heat your body, curing colds and aiding in blood circulation, so this is a perfect meal for this chilly and damp weekend ahead. Even better, though, spicy foods are thought to ward off evil, and we certainly hope that this meal does the job!
Featured Recipe: Bang Bang Ji
Bang Bang Chicken
Recipe adapted from The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 lb chicken breasts, poached, boiled or steamed, then shredded & chilled
6 scallions, green parts only, washed and sliced thinly on the bias
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
50 g peanuts, dry roasted & unsalted (about ½ cup)
For the sauce:
45 g sesame paste (about 2 tbsp), tahini works here if you can’t find Chinese sesame paste
2.5 g salt (½ tsp)
10 g sugar (2 tsp)
2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
2 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp chicken stock
1.5 g (½ tsp) Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground in a spice grinder or mortar & pestle
40 g (4 tbsp) chile oil, with or without sediment, to taste
1 tsp Sesame oil
To make the sauce, dilute the sesame paste with a little oil from the jar and a splash of cold water
It just needs to be just runny enough to coat the chicken.
Place the salt, sugar, soy sauce, stock and vinegar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, then stir in the remaining ingredients.
Place the chicken in the bowl with the scallions, peanuts and sauce and toss like a salad.
Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed
Garnish with the sesame seeds and scallion slices and enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop is the exhaustive English-language resource for Sichuan food. Dunlop has lived and worked in China since 1994, and was the first foreigner to train at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.
The Mala Market is an incredible resource for traditional Sichuan recipes, ingredients, and food history.
Here is a rough guide to the regional culinary traditions of China.
You’re probably going to spend the rest of your day watching the live camera from the Chengdu Panda Base on iPanda. If the cameras aren’t on, here is a highlights video of the Panda Base. (Note that the time difference is 13 hours, and some of the webcams are turned off at night, so your best bet is checking after about 6pm EST.)
Information on the incredible Dujiangyan irrigation system, and the festival held each year to celebrate its existence.
Here is more on the science of spicy food and the numbing effects of the Sichuan peppercorn.