Sichuan cuisine has become the new champion of Chinese food abroad. While once the lighter flavours of Cantonese cooking held sway in global Chinatowns, this spicy upstart has conquered hearts and palates not only in great cities like Melbourne, London and New York, but all over the world. Classic Sichuan dishes like ma po tofu and dan dan noodles are no longer toned down for Cantonese or Western palates, but served up in all their fiery, lip-tingling glory. The rapidity of this Sichuanese takeover has been astonishing.
When I applied for a scholarship to study in China in the mid-1990s, I was strongly influenced by Sichuan's gastronomic reputation, but knew almost nothing about the region's cuisine. At that time, there were no genuine Sichuan restaurants in London, and while the names of a few classic dishes popped up from time to time on Chinese restaurant menus, they were pale imitations of the authentic versions. In 1993, however, a trip to the Sichuan capital Chengdu had opened my eyes to the scintillating flavours of the local food, and I knew I wanted to learn more about it. On that visit, a couple of Sichuanese friends had taken me out to eat, and I'd been thrilled and delighted by my first tastes of dishes such as fish-fragrant eggplant, fish braised in chilli bean sauce and fire-exploded kidney flowers.
Of course, that was just the beginning. I took up my scholarship at Sichuan University in 1994, but was quickly seduced away from my studies by my fascination with the local cuisine. I spent days in the kitchens of local restaurants, took a few private classes at the famous local cooking school, the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, and ended up becoming the first foreigner to enrol there as a regular student.
The food I tasted and cooked during those two years in Sichuan was more exciting and delicious than any Chinese food (and probably any food) I'd previously encountered. Local gourmets boasted of the myriad flavours of the cuisine, saying "each dish has its own style, and a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavours".What was remarkable was how much more diverse Sichuan food was than its "hot-and-spicy" reputation suggested. Sure, there were dishes that crackled and sang with chilli and Sichuan pepper, but there was also the mild, fruity chilli heat of "fish-fragrant" dishes with their underlying melody of sweet and sour, and the irresistible complexity of "garlic paste" dishes seasoned with sweet soy sauce, chilli oil and garlic. Many dishes weren't spicy at all. Sichuan cuisine was no mere postscript to the dominant Cantonese style: it was a whole system of cooking with its own charming and distinctive character. Before long, I was hooked.
A couple of years later, I wrote a proposal for a Sichuanese cookbook, sent it off to six British publishers and received six letters of rejection. British readers, the editors all replied in their different ways, would never be interested in something as narrowly focused as a regional Chinese cookbook. Luckily, a year later I decided to give my proposal another shot, and it was quickly taken up by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books.
The book's reception in the UK and, two years later, the US, overtook all my hopes and expectations. Western readers, it turned out, were ready to explore Chinese food in more detail, and, like me, adored the kaleidoscopic flavours of Sichuan. In those early days, sourcing Sichuanese ingredients was often difficult. It was hard to find good Sichuan pepper, the kind that made your lips tingle and whose scent made you swoon. The only chilli bean paste available was the Lee Kum Kee version, made with soy beans as well as the traditional broad beans which could be used to delicious effect in Sichuan dishes but lacked the gutsiness of the authentic paste. Another challenge was finding dried red chillies that were mild and aromatic enough to be used in lavish Sichuanese quantities. Most Chinese groceries abroad were run by Cantonese immigrants who had little taste themselves for the spicy seasonings of Sichuan cuisine.
Since then, the world's appreciation of Sichuan food has been transformed. The opening up of China in the 1990s allowed a new generation of Chinese people to live, study and work abroad. They were no longer mainly Cantonese, and brought with them different tastes and, in particular, a boundless appetite for the spicy cuisine that was already taking China by storm. New Chinese restaurants opened that had no need to compromise to win over hesitant Western palates, but could serve real Chinese food on Chinese terms. Even Cantonese restaurants started adding spicy Sichuanese dishes to their menus. The boom in Sichuanese dining-out had a knock-on effect on the availability of ingredients: with a ready market, traditional Chinese groceries started selling the authentic seasonings used to cook Sichuan food.
My own journey of exploration of Sichuan cuisine has never ended. Over the last 20 years, I have continued to eat my way around the province, revelling in the discovery of new regional delicacies and styles. The diversity and dynamism of Sichuan food never ceases to amaze me. Every time I revisit Chengdu, new dishes are available, some of them made with new, imported ingredients such as okra and ice grass, others previously obscure local specialities that are being revived or showcased by local entrepreneurs. The new, updated edition of my Sichuanese cookbook, now titled The Food of Sichuan, is an attempt to reflect some of these changes, as well as my own deepened appreciation of Sichuan cuisine.
While people outside China have become enthusiastic fans of Sichuan cuisine, the Chinese too are rediscovering their own food culture. In particular, the smash-hit TV series A Bite of China, which brought spectacular footage of traditional ingredients and cooking skills into living rooms all over the country, encouraged people to see their gastronomic heritage not only as one of life's daily pleasures, but as an expression of a rich and ancient civilisation. Sightseers visiting old towns increasingly want not only to taste the local food, but to watch artisanal cooks and food producers at work.
More than two years of "reform and opening up" have remade the landscapes and cityscapes of China. The old city of Chengdu in which I lived in the 1990s has mostly been erased and the surrounding countryside gobbled up by development. Despite these changes, the city remains as magnetic to foreigners as to people from other parts of China. Chengdu has long been renowned for its pleasure-loving life, which lives on in the honeyed cadences of the dialect, the charm and humour of local people, and above all in the rich and varied flavours of the local food.
The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop will be published by Bloomsbury in November.