Thursday, May 25, 2017, 1:39 AM CST – China

Outside In

flavor of the month

The Heat Is On

On my mission to find China’s spiciest food, Sichuan Province was my first port of call. I give credit for my first experience of unique Chinese piquancy to the Sichuanese peppercorn. When I found some of these small, brown, harmless-looking citruses (yes, really) floating in a steaming bowl of fish broth, I popped one in my mouth and crushed it between my teeth. Curiosity did not serve me well. A strong, soapy taste flooded my taste buds, numbing my entire mouth, lips included!

The notoriously anesthetic properties of the Chinese flavor ma la is used to excess in contemporary Sichuanese cooking, but this is a recent development. Believe it or not, flavors in this region of China were originally mild and sweet. In fact, though Sichuan is often considered the birthplace of China’s most tongue-searing flavors, a traditional Chinese saying goes, “Sichuanese don’t fear spice, Guizhounese don’t fear any degree of spice, and Hunanese fear food with no spice at all.” Could the food of Guizhou and Hunan Province really surpass that of Sichuan in terms of burn factor?

The people of Guizhou Province, situated southeast of Sichuan, have a well-documented love for heat. Tradition would have it that if a person from Guizhou doesn’t eat spice for three days, they won’t be able to walk. Yet this province’s relationship with spice, at least according to legend, began by accident. When the worldwide spice trade first began over 4,000 years ago, the sheer expense and rarity of most seasonings relegated them to medicinal and religious use. During the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644), green peppers finally reached China from the Americas. When an enterprising chef in the employ of a Guizhou provincial governor served pork deep fried with hot peppers to an imperial envoy, the horrified dignitary, his tastebuds scorched, suspected poisoning. I like to think that once he realized he wasn’t dead, he might have ordered a second helping.

I must admit, there are moments when I too am suspicious of the quantity of spice packed into some dishes, though I usually only have myself to blame. I caused quite a stir in my local Guizhou restaurant when I asked the owner to bring me the establishment’s spiciest dish. He seemed confused. “Which would you like? In Guizhou, no dish is the spiciest, they are all spicy!”

I let him choose for me. The tangy smell of suan la, sour and spicy, fish soup had my mouth watering before I clapped eyes on the steaming dish. This traditional favorite of the Miao ethnic group achieves its mouth-puckering sourness from slow-pickled local Guizhou tomatoes. The astringency of the pickles helps temper the chili peppers and chili oil that are also added to the broth. Scrambled eggs set alight with zao la jiao, fermented chili paste, followed the soup course – a heady combination of hot peppers and garlic steeped in rice liquor for up to two weeks that is used as a go-to kitchen cupboard condiment by Guizhou natives the world over.

So, Guizhou packs a punch, but what of the Xiang cuisine originating in Hunan Province? Chili pepper volume in Xiang dishes beats that found in Sichuan and Guizhou dishes almost every time. Hunanese chefs began using red chili peppers to flavor food earlier than their Sichuanese counterparts, which may explain why so many dishes are spiced using both fresh and dried red chilies. The taste created is described as gan la, dry and hot, and can be eye-watering, but goes spectacularly well with the locally reared beef.

With the changing of the seasons in Hunan comes a changing of menus. Winter menus feature gan guo, small cast iron pots that are brought sizzling to the table. Though the spices used are similar to those found in a Sichuan hotpot, the absence of broth makes the kick that much more fiery. As the heat of summer rolls around, hot food is replaced with cold cured meats, though these too are liberally seasoned with fresh red chilies, designed to coax a sheen of sweat onto the forehead of diners keen to cool off.

But Sichuan’s approach to spice is still deserving of praise, as, of the three I have researched, it is perhaps the most complex. An important aspect of Chuan (Sichuanese) cuisine is the combination of basic flavors in the formation of ba wei – “eight flavors” – of spice. The saying “One dish, one taste; hundreds of dishes, hundreds of tastes,” reflects Sichuan’s extensive relationship with fragrance, spice and gastronomic refinement. In China’s chili triangle – Sichuan-Hunan-Guizhou – no one cuisine, it seems, can claim the “spiciest” crown. But all can claim, in their own right, to be exceptionally delicious

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