Sichuan – a landlocked province in SW China – has some of the most interesting, and distinctive, cuisine in the entire country. Let’s go in for a deep dive.
Proper, high-quality Sichuanese ingredients can be harder (and costlier) to come by than any previous box we've done, so there are fewer ingredients in this box – five – with each one packing a real flavor punch. No need to be intimidated, though – we’ll walk through it together.
I also prioritized some of the ingredients that are truly difficult to find at a high-level of quality. There are a few other ingredients you may find helpful (and perhaps already have in your pantry), such as soy sauce, Chingkiang vinegar/black Chinese vinegar, Shaoixing rice wine, corn starch, and sesame oil, and on the fresh side you'll see a lot of garlic, ginger, scallions, and pepper. One thing you might not have that would be helpful -- but is pretty easy to find online, is douchi, fermented black beans. I had success with this brand on Amazon.
Many (though not all) dishes can be made with different proteins -- for instance, you could certainly use tofu, pork, or shrimp instead of chicken in the Kung Pao chicken I describe below, but I wouldn't recommend anything but stewing beef (or lamb, I suppose) in the beef and radish stew.
Many of the recipes below came from my bible for Sichuanese cooking -- Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty. I can't recommend it highly enough, and it now comes in a new and improved version!
Here's what's in the box:
* Pixian Douban (QiVeda)
* Yibin Yacai (QiVeda)
* Sichuan Chili Crisp (Fly By Jing)
* Sichuan Pepper (Curio Co)
* Sichuan Five Spice (Curio Co)
Pixian Douban (QiVeda)
Real douban – fermented chili bean paste -- should have just four ingredients, plus water, fermented in a multi-year process: broad beans, chili, wheat flour, and salt. And this is the real stuff, deeply flavorful, bursting with umami, and essential to Sichuan cooking.
Added to hot oil, this becomes the base of many classic Sichuan dishes like ma po tofu, dan dan noodles, dry-fried green beans, kung pao chicken, and many others. You can also go off-recipe, and simply fry a spoonful in oil before tossing your veg or protein of choice in it for roasting (maybe adding some of the chili crisp below and a bit of soy sauce).
See the bottom of this post for a bunch of recipe ideas.
Yibin Yacai (QiVeda)
Like the douban, proper sui mi yacai (fermented mustard green sprouts, chopped into broken rice style, from Yibin), is harder to source than it should be, necessary for authentic Sichuan flavor, and here for you in this box.
It’s substantially different from the pickled mustard greens you often see in specialty stores; this is more of a base note, often added at the start of a dish, with different flavor and texture. It’s a crucial part of some classic Sichuan dishes like dan dan noodles and dry-fried green beans, and it can also add additional flavor elsewhere.
Sichuan Chili Crisp (Fly By Jing)
Saveur said that this chili crisp “tastes good on literally everything,” and they’re right. Proudly made in Chengdu (Sichuan’s provincial capital), you can use this as a more-flavorful form of Sichuan chili oil (called for in many recipes, including some we go into below), and it also works as a topping on its own, bringing some spicy heat, some tingly heat, and a whole lot of flavor.
Sichuan Pepper (Curio Co)
While not a true pepper (it’s actually a berry from the citrus family), Sichuan peppercorns are perhaps the single flavor most identified with Sichuanese cooking: a bit spicy, and surprisingly tongue-tingling, if you’re not yet familiar.
A few go a long way, usually added into oil early in a dish, but occasionally at the end. You can also grind these up to disperse more fully.
Sichuan Five-Spice (Curio Co)
Five-spice blend is a base mix of five spices you find in Sichuan cooking, and provides a great shortcut to a Sichuanese flavor profile – either for roasting, tossing on a dish for flavor at the end, or for a long braise in a soup or stew: star anise, cassia, coriander, clove, and Sichuan pepper.
Most five-spice blends on the market are…not great, to say the least, tending more toward the profile you’d associate with a pumpkin-spice latte than a Sichuanese stew. This is an exception: well-balanced, flavorful, and versatile, you should be grabbing pinches of this for a while.
See below for a couple places this blend has come in handy!
A couple of overall notes:
* Mis en place is absolutely vital here. Much of what you cook with these ingredients should be in a wok, quickly, over high heat -- so being ready with each ingredient when you need it is super important. It also means that once you're ready to fire up the wok, you can often be ready to eat pretty quickly.
* As most of what I did is adapted from Land of Plenty, I've done my best simply to link out to other articles, and describe any substitutions I made along the way.
Mapo Tofu (Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd)
This might be the most famous Sichuan dish -- and with good reason. It's both truly unique and absolutely delicious (and pretty hard to find done well).
I used Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe (as in most cases below), with a couple of shifts: I added some yibin yacai at the same time as the chili bean paste, which I saw done in some other recipes, and I used fewer ground chilies.
Dan Dan Noodles
Second only to mapo tofu in Sichuanese notoriety, dan dan noodles are tasty, super easy, and they make great use of the yibin yacai and the chile crisp in this month's box.
I used this recipe and served atop some steamed Chinese broccoli to make it a full meal. I didn't have any sesame paste, so I omitted, and I added some Sichuan five spice to the sauce for extra flavor. I also used a handful of ground beef instead of pork because it's what I had on hand. You could omit entirely, or fry up some tofu crumbs instead for a veg version.
Dry-fried Green Beans
This is another dish where the yibin yacai really shines -- and it's super simple to put together. I served it with some steamed dumplings for a great weeknight dinner.
Here's the recipe I used, with the following shifts:
* I steamed the beans in advance so it'd be less oily
* I used ground beef instead of pork because it's what I had on hand
* I added a bit of Sichuan chili crisp at the table as a topping
Red-Braised Beef with White Radish
This hearty stew can be done in a dutch oven - or I used an Instant Pot, and it was on the table in about an hour. I used a chuck roast that I cut up, but any good stew beef would work. Short ribs would be amazing.
I used this recipe, substituting a healthy shake of the five spice blend in lieu of the star anise and cao guo, and it also uses the douban and the Sichuan pepper. I served atop chinese noodles I picked up at the local Asian grocery. I also used turnips from my garden instead of radish.
Smashed Cucumber Salad
Starting off light to close out the summer, this is a great side dish, and super simple. I adapted this recipe, as I didn't have the whole peppers to snip off, so instead used the Fly By Jing chili crisp instead of the peanut oil. I also garnished with cilantro.
From above, this used some Sichuan pepper and some chili crisp.
Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken with Peanuts
This has long been a go-to of mine as a restaurant order, so I was thrilled when my attempt at home was literally better than any other version I've tasted.
It uses the Sichuan pepper from above.
I started with this recipe, with the following substitutions/changes:
* I used chicken thighs (2 lbs) instead of breast, for more flavor and moisture
* I used some fresh chilies + a handful of the Sichuan pepper above, as I had no appropriate dried whole chilies
* I added fresh bell pepper
* I used the dried ginger from the Thailand and Cambodia box, as I had run out of fresh
* I didn't have sesame oil, so I toasted sesame seads with peanut oil. It definitely would have been better with sesame oil.
Hot and Sour Soup
From one restaurant standby to another -- you now have what you need to make great hot and sour soup from home! Ironically, there's actually nothing in here that came in this month's box, because you don't need anything that hard to come by -- but if you can make the stuff above, the only additional thing you'll need is mushrooms (fresh and dried). Give it a whirl :)
And for Ben to Table Box subscribers, you can find everything you need to know about this month's Essentials here: https://bentotable.com/blogs/news/what-to-do-with-september-essentials