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Although it’s most famous for its electrifying use of chilies and lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, the heart of the local style of cooking lies in the artful mixing of flavors.
Sichuanese cooks excel at combining hot, numbing, sweet, sour, savory and nutty seasonings to create an astonishing variety of flavors.
Locals like to say "each dish has its own style; a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors."
Some of these are dazzlingly hot, like the numbing-and-hot mix of Sichuan pepper and dried chilies.
Other dishes are mildly spicy, like those featuring a fish-fragrant sauce based on pickled chilies, and those with a sweet-and-sour lychee-flavored sauce are not hot at all.
1. Liang ban ji: Cold chicken in a spicy sauce
Sichuanese cold chicken dishes, made with poached chicken bathed in a spicy sauce, are simple yet sensational.
There’s no single recipe, but the chicken is often chopped on the bone and a typical sauce might include vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil and a sprinkling of ground Sichuan pepper.
Roasted peanuts or sesame seeds and sliced scallions may be added as a final flourish.
2. Mapo doufu: Pock-marked old woman’s tofu
If you ever thought tofu was boring, this dish will make you think again.
It’s a mind-blowingly delicious concoction of tender tofu, minced beef or pork, Sichuan chili bean sauce and ground Sichuan pepper that will warm your heart and make your lips tingle.
It’s named after its inventor, a Qing Dynasty woman restaurateur with a pock-marked face.
3. Hui guo rou: Twice-cooked pork
No dish is more beloved by the Sichuanese than this homely stir-fry of sizzling pork (complete with its fragrant fat) with chili bean sauce, fermented black beans and green garlic leaves.
The meat is first boiled, then sliced and fried, which is why it’s called "twice-cooked pork," or literally, "back-in-the-pot" pork.
With nothing more than plain white rice and perhaps a gentle broth, it makes an entirely satisfying meal.
4. Yu xiang qie zi: Fish-fragrant eggplant
Classic "fish-fragrant" sauces are made with bright red pickled chilies, ginger, garlic and scallion, with base notes of sweet and sour -- these are the seasonings of traditional fish cookery, which is the usual explanation for the curious name.
This combination of flavors can be used with meat, fish or poultry, but one of the most delicious variations is the everyday fish-fragrant eggplant.
5. Shui zhu yu: Water-boiled fish with sizzling chili oil
When the craze for Sichuanese food took China by storm in the late 1990s, this dish took center stage.
It’s a dramatic centerpiece of poached fish in a great sea of sizzling oil, thick with dried chilies and Sichuan pepper. The pieces of fish should be picked out of the fragrant oil with chopsticks: the oil itself is not meant to be eaten.
6. Shi ling shu cai: Seasonal greens
Lavishly spicy Sichuan dishes tend to hog the limelight, but no meal is complete without the balancing of mildly-flavored dishes -- in particular seasonal vegetables.
Sichuan province lives up to its reputation as the "land of plenty" in its gorgeous abundance of fresh produce.
Try, for example, tender rape shoots (cai tai) in early spring, or the weirdly-wonderful ze’er gen, sometimes known as fishgrass or Chinese watercress, a salad vegetable with a distinctive sour taste.
7. Zhong shui jiao: Zhong dumplings in a spicy sauce
The Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, is famed for its "small eats."
Zhong dumplings are small pork dumplings bathed in sweetened soy sauce, mashed garlic and chili oil.
Named after a local street vendor, they are one of the most popular Chengdu snacks.
8. Ma la huo guo: Numbing-and-hot hotpot
Sichuan hotpot is a whole dinner ritual: you sit around a seething cauldron of chilies and cook your own food in the broth.
Originally a specialty of Chongqing, it’s said to have been invented by laborers on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Locally preferred hotpot ingredients include beef tripe and other offal, but you may choose from a vast range of meats, vegetables and tofu.
Many restaurants offer divided hotpots, so diners can cook their food in either a spicy or a mildly flavored broth.