Cuisine from China’s southwestern Sichuan province has a well-deserved reputation for intense flavors given its frequent use of chili peppers, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, bean paste, and garlic. Many aficionados of the cuisine insist that the spicier, the better. Anything less than fiery is considered pedestrian.

My brother was close friends in college with a Chengdu native who insisted heat was paramount to the Sichuan dining experience. At the then only authentic Sichuan restaurant in Connecticut’s Hartford County, he always ordered the dishes on the menu identified with three chili peppers (zero was the mildest, three the hottest). While the rest of us were sweating or choking, he would note casually that the food “still lacked some flavor.” Once, cooking up a Sichuan feast in our home, he used so much chili oil that it set off the smoke detector.

In Taiwan, where milder flavors are preferred, one is hard pressed to find Sichuan food with much kick. The Taiwanese palate tends to recoil instinctively from overly liberal doses of the chili oil, hot peppers, and salt that are essential ingredients in classic Sichuan dishes like mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, “pockmarked old woman beancurd”), double-cooked pork (回鍋肉), or spicy eggplant with minced pork (魚香茄子). Indeed, when Taiwanese chefs are indulgent with any single ingredient, it tends to be sugar – not oil, chili, or salt.

That tendency has led some purists to lament the lack of authenticity in Taipei’s Sichuan restaurants. On the Facebook page of the Chili House, one of Taiwan’s longest-running Sichuan restaurants, some recent comments lambast the restaurant for toning down the spiciness. Commentator Kli Tei laments that the Chili House takes the edge off of its food to suit foreign tastebuds (an interesting comment, as I have seen few foreign customers there on multiple visits). He says he had to ask the restaurant manager to add extra chili peppers to the food to make it sufficiently pungent.

Commentator Sam Yang goes further, blaming the restaurant’s second-generation management for failing to maintain its erstwhile high standard. Yang says the food is insufficiently numbing and aromatic, tasting nothing like what he remembers from his childhood. “Don’t take your Chinese clients or friends here; they won’t be happy,” he writes.

It didn’t look that way on a recent Thursday evening, with the restaurant at full capacity and several boisterous dinner banquets in full swing. The guests were nearly all Taiwanese. People First Party chairman James Soong even showed up to have dinner with one of the restaurant owners, who glowed with pride as he introduced us.

Soong has long been a regular, according to co-owner Wan Min-chi. “He loves the food,” she says. The veteran Taiwanese politician is one of a number of luminaries who frequent the Chili House, which has a reputation for discretion. “The windows here do not face the street, so dining here is a very private experience,” Wan notes. Although the Chili House’s address is listed as 250-3 ZhongXiao East Road, Section 4 – a very central location – the entrance is actually in a narrow lane that is easy to miss.

Boiled pork with mashed garlic (蒜泥白肉) is one of the standard dishes on Sichuan menus (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

Of course, the setting is unimportant if the food is outstanding, and the Chili House has plenty of it: savory dan dan noodles (擔擔麵), delicate Chengdu-style pork dumplings (紅油餃子), pan-fried string beans with minced pork (乾扁四季豆) served in a thin pancake, and a fluffy Sichuan omelette bathed in chili sauce (魚香烘蛋), to name a few.

Wan concedes that in its 65-year history the Chili House has adjusted some of its recipes (it was founded in 1951 by a group of recent migrants from Sichuan together with several local Taiwanese). That’s a response to market demand, she explains. “In recent years, Taiwanese have become more health conscious. People want to eat food that’s not overly oily, that’s not too salty.”

The difference between the Chili House’s food and Sichuan food served in China is palpable, says Wan, who makes regular trips to China for culinary inspiration. “The Sichuan food you’ll have in Chengdu or even Shanghai is heavier than what’s served in Taiwan,” she says. “It’s more of everything: chili peppers, oil, salt, sauces.”

Sichuan cuisine 101

Research by China’s state-run China Publishing Group has found that the intense flavors that characterize Sichuan cuisine today only became common about a hundred years ago, and that in the beginning only the lower classes ate food prepared in this style. While Portuguese traders introduced hot pepper to China in the late 17th century, it took several centuries before it became a staple of Sichuan cooking.

Interestingly, during the Three Kingdoms period in China (the 3rd century AD), Sichuan was the location of the Shu kingdom, whose inhabitants were known for preferring sweet food. Their tastes changed in the Jin Dynasty era (AD 265-420) when they developed a taste for pungent food flavored with ginger, mustard, chives, and onions.

The mild flavorings that characterized Sichuan cuisine in ancient times can still be tasted in dishes today like camphor tea roast duck (樟茶鴨), boiled pork with mashed garlic (蒜泥白肉), and dry-fried carp (豆瓣鯉魚).

Chef Fong Chin Hsu of the Ambassador Hotel’s Szechuan Court – considered the top of the line among Sichuan restaurants in Taipei – notes that due to the numerous cooking techniques involved, Sichuan cuisine is far more complex than most people realize. Among these techniques are dry-frying, dry-braising, water poaching, and the smoking of meats.

In an interview with the website Serious Eats, Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop said Sichuan cuisine is best characterized by its “stunning variety of flavors.” She referred to a Chinese idiomatic expression that translates as “each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.”

The Chili House’s version of the classic Sichuan dish dan dan noodles is a good example of that. Most Taiwanese versions of the dish are anodyne, its subtle blend of numbness and fire overwhelmed by gobs of peanut or sesame sauce. The Chili House’s take on the dish is a symphony of flavors by comparison, the sauce a savory mix of preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan pepper, minced pork, and scallions. It’s just hot enough to excite your palate, but the spiciness doesn’t overpower the many other rich flavors in the dish.

The Szechuan Court’s Chef Fong (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

I found the same is true of the mapo tofu at the Ambassador Hotel’s Szechuan Court. Typically, mapo tofu in mainland China is blazing hot. It tastes of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns. In Taiwan, the dish is more likely to be devoid of spice and a little sweet. But the Ambassador has found a perfect balance. Chef Fong says the use of minced beef – required by the traditional recipe – instead of pork makes the dish more savory. The key, he says, is to first dry-fry the beef, and then set it aside, adding it to the tofu at the end as a garnish rather than stir-fried with the rest of the ingredients.

Another recommended Taipei Sichuan restaurant is Xiao Wei, which opened as a 10-seat eatery in 1971 near Nanmen Market and moved to its current location near Taipei Main Station about 20 years ago. Chen Ching-bin, the restaurant manager, says Xiao Wei focuses on serving top-quality but simple Sichuan-style dishes at a reasonable price. “We want this restaurant to be accessible to all types of guests, so we keep prices affordable,” he says. An average meal at Xiao Wei runs NT$300-$400 per person, which is not high by Taipei standards.

The cooking is more home-style than at the Chili House, but equally enjoyable. Chen recommends the gong bao chicken (宮保雞丁), mapo tofu, and the classic Sichuan hotpot of pig intestine and duck’s blood (五更腸旺). The latter is a favorite of Taiwanese, though Westerners may be squeamish approaching it. At Chen’s prodding, I tucked into a piece of intestine, which had the consistency of firm bean curd and had absorbed the intense heat of the broth.

Chen says Xiao Wei is able to keep prices low but quality high because its head chef, Chiang Chin-chen, formerly worked as a purchaser of ingredients for hotel restaurants, waking up as early as 2 a.m., combing the city’s markets for his clients, and delivering their orders before 8 a.m. “He spent years sourcing ingredients for some of the best restaurants in town,” Chen says. “He became very good at finding the best and freshest ingredients.”

While Sichuan food is arguably more of an acquired taste than other milder Chinese cuisines like Cantonese or Taiwanese, enthusiasts are fiercely devoted, the Ambassador Hotel’s Fong says. Some may even wish to try their hand at cooking Sichuan food at home. Chef Fong does not recommend that. “It’s very difficult to make authentic Sichuan food at home,” he says. “There are too many ingredients required, most homes lack a stove with a hot enough flame for the various cooking techniques, and then there’s the problem of ventilation.”

Recalling how my brother’s Chengdu friend set off our smoke detector, I would say Chef Fong’s advice is astute: “Leave the Sichuan cooking to us.”

Xiao Wei’s mapo tofu (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

Some recommended restaurants:

Chili House (四川吳抄手)
250-3 ZhongXiao E. Rd., Sec. 4, Taipei.
Tel: 2721-6088

Emei Restaurant (峨嵋 餐廳)
No. 10, Alley 8, Lane 316, Roosevelt Rd., Sec. 3, Taipei.
Tel: 2365-5157

Huangcheng Laoma Sichuan Restaurant (皇城老媽四川家庭料理 )
No. 5, Lane 97, YanJi St., Taipei.
Tel: 2773-6936

Kiki Yanji Dian (KiKi延吉店)
No. 47, Lane 280, GuangFu S. Rd., Taipei.
Tel: 27814250
(see the website for the location of other branches)

Szechuan Court (川菜廳)
12F, Ambassador Hotel
63 ZhongShan N. Rd., Sec. 2, Taipei
Tel: 2551-1111 x2384

Xiao Wei Sichuang (小魏川菜餐廳)
3F, 13 GongYuan Rd., Taipei
Tel: 2371-8427

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

(Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)

TNL Editor: Edward White