Chinese Cuisine: Szechwan

The cuisine of the Western region of China is well-known for its knock-you-on-the-butt spiciness, but many Western palates overlook the complex interplay of savory, sour, hot, and sweet flavors that underlie the fiery spice of the Szechwan pepper and other spices that make up the Szechwan style of cooking and give it its characteristic burn.

For decades, most of the world was familiar mainly with Cantonese cuisine, and thought it represented the whole of Chinese cuisine. In reality, China is an enormous country that encompasses nearly every kind of climate known to man. The amazing variety of foods, spices, and climates have led to many distinct styles of Chinese cooking styles. Szechwan cuisine, originating in a steamy, sub-tropical climate, includes smoked, pickled, and spiced dishes, as well as foods spiced with a heavy hand for both preservation and flavor.

While the Szechwan pepper, a fruit that grows in the Chongging province, has always been used in Szechwan cooking, most agree that it wasn't until Christopher Columbus brought the chili back from the new world that things really began to heat up. Besides the flavors that sear the mouth, Szechwan cooking utilizes an interplay of flavors to create the full impact of a dish.

Hot and Sour Soup, for instance, when prepared properly is neither exclusively hot, nor is it ultimately sour. Prepared with sorrel, lemongrass, and other spices, its first impression is the heady, rich scent of roast meat and sour lemon. That aroma is belied with the first touch on the tongue -- the soup is salty at first, though not intensely so. The subtle blending of flavors melds, changing in the mouth to mildly sour, which is the sorrel and lemongrass making themselves known. It is not until the soup has been swallowed that the fire starts as the chili oil finally seeps into the taste buds.

This is not unusual for Szechwan cooking. The first hit of Kung Pao chicken rarely brings tears to your eyes. It is only as you chew and swallow and take yet another bite that the true heat of the dish begins to take dominance. Double Cooked Spicy Pork seems almost bland at first, with the flavors blending subtly in the background until the intense fire of the chili oil in which the pork is fried suddenly flames up.

But there's more than fire to Szechwan cuisine, a lot more. Smoked meats are common, and the smoking often makes use of unusual materials and flavors. Szechwan Tea-Smoked Duck is a delicacy that combines the flavors of citrus and ginger and garlic, merging them with a long, slow cooking over a fire laced with green tea and oolong leaves. The result is a succulent meat that melts in the mouth and leaves behind a delightful echo of gingered orange.

One tradition of Szechwan cuisine that is becoming more and more prevalent in the Western world is something called the Szechwan Hot Pot. Similar to the yuppy fondue trend, a Hot Pot is more an event than a meal. Chunks and slices of raw meat, seafood and vegetables are offered to diners at a table that holds one of these Hot Pots, which is a pot of chili oil over a flame. Each diner selects their food and dips it in the chili oil until the food is cooked. Often, restaurants will also offer a pot of plain broth for those guests who can't tolerate the spiciness of food fried in chili oil.

Savory, rich and spicy, Szechwan cooking is cuisine based on intensity.

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