Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:39 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


Editor's Picks

Sex for Snacks

In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, a handful of high school…[More]

Worked to Death

A growing number of young Chinese white-collar employees are dying of…[More]


How Communism’s most controversial theorist finally found an audience – in…[More]

What do Chinese People Want?

“I wish I could do what you do.”…[More]


A student of Buddhism with a keen interest in China’s…[More]

Prize Fighter

Elevated into the State-approved pantheon of great Chinese writers thanks to…[More]

Dams in Distress

In 1975, over 60 dams collapsed after a rainstorm in Zhumadian city, Henan…[More]

Pathologically Politicized

Practitioners at all levels concur that “messy” is the word that…[More]


China’s indigenous honey bee is under threat from both environmental…[More]

Exam Boot Camp

A middle school in Anhui province has earned a reputation for…[More]

The New Class

China’s growing online education market has attracted the attention of…[More]

From Stall to Mall

Taobao’s shift towards a business-to-consumer model has come at a…[More]

In Whose Court?

The failure of the country’s administrative litigation system has prompted…[More]

Tradition on Trial

After Confucianism made the maintenance of inequality between the sexes fundamental…[More]

Inevitable Brutality

The vicious murder of a doctor in a Zhejiang hospital shows…[More]

Progress or Pornography?

A new sex education primer aimed at elementary school-age children has…[More]

Graft Breeds Graft

The gap between the investigation and prosecution of official corruption cases…[More]

Saving Nature

The concept of animal welfare is yet to be widely acknowledged…[More]

Problem Solved?

Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s public trial sends mixed messages…[More]


A 74-year-old man surnamed Xie from Shenyang, Liaoning Province was duped out of 420,000 yuan (US$69,342), despite bank employees’ efforts to…[More]

An Avoidable Tragedy

Poor city planning and lax safety regulations turned a minor gas…[More]


A policeman pulled his gun to dissuade villagers from stealing oranges…[More]

Who Cares?

A new law decrees that all Chinese citizens are now obliged…[More]

Mean Streets

The chengguan system has become the most visible symptom of a…[More]

How do Chinese people live?

So, the bottom line is that Beijing is an expensive place.…[More]

Back in Action

After stagnating for 10 years, China’s SOE reform has fired up…[More]


The hanging coffins of the Bo people, a Chinese ethnic minority…[More]


Wang Xun, an archeologist with Peking University, arranged the bones of…[More]

Trust Trip

Embarking on a three-month car journey around China without handing over…[More]

Fading Lights

For those who grew up under the bright lights of China…[More]