By Darren Lim
To most foreigners, Sichuan delicacies are comprised of only three flavors: spicy, salty, and oily. More often than not, they're all tossed into one big wok. However, Chengdu-born food lovers beg to differ; some consider Sichuan cuisine the greatest invention not just since sliced bread, but long before it, too. And in reverence to their city's beloved food, they have built an entire culture on it (a culture that goes beyond tea and mahjong). This includes an elaborate classification of flavors that heaps shame on the basic Western palate of "sweet, sour, salty, and bitter."
Sichuan food possesses two basic categories of flavors: simple and complex.
Simple flavors cover the basic tastes, plus a few extra sensations that are endearingly familiar to anyone living in Chengdu.
Sweet (甜 tián)
Sour (酸 suān)
Salty (咸 xián)
Bitter (苦 kǔ)
Spicy (辣 là)
Numbing (麻 má)
Using these simple flavors as building blocks, Chengdu chefs have created an entire system of complex flavors, one that ranges from dozens to hundreds of unique tastes, depending on your perspective. Here are a few you might encounter:
Strange tasting (怪味 guàiwèi): Consists of salt, soy sauce, chili oil, chili powder, sesame sauce, sugar, garlic, sesame oil, MSG, and others. Representative dishes: strange-tasting beans (怪味豆 guàiwèidòu) and strange-tasting pork stomach (怪味肚丝 guàiwèidǔsī).
Home-cooked style (家常味 jiāchángwèi): Consists of bean paste, red chili, salt, and soy sauce. Representative dishes: twice-cooked pork (回锅肉 huíguōròu), homestyle tofu (家常豆腐 jiācháng dòufu).
Fish fragrance (鱼香味 yúxiāngwèi): Consists of salt, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, pickled chili, ginger, onion, and garlic. Representative dishes: yuxiang pork strips (鱼香肉丝 yúxiāng ròusī), yuxiang braised eggplant (魚香茄子 yúxiāng qiézi).
Numbing and spicy (麻辣味 málàwèi): Consists of salt, bean paste, dried red chili, Sichuan pepper, chili powder, and soy sauce. Representative dishes: mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu), water-boiled beef (水煮牛肉 shuízhú niúròu).
Sticky spicy (糊辣味húlàwèi): Consists of salt, soy sauce, dried red chili, Sichuan pepper, ginger, garlic, and onion. Representative dishes: Kungpao chicken (宫保鸡丁gōngbǎo jīdīng), Kungpao prawn balls (宫保虾仁 gōngbǎo xiārén).
Sour and spicy (酸辣味suānlàwèi): Consists of salt, soy sauce, chili powder, MSG, and sesame oil. Representative dishes: chili chicken (辣子鸡 làzǐ jī), spicy cucumber (抢黄瓜 qiāng huángguā).
Garlic paste (蒜泥味 suànníwèi): Consists of minced garlic, chili oil, soy sauce, and sugar. Representative dishes: Garlic pork (蒜泥白肉 suànní báiròu), garlic cucumber (蒜泥黄瓜 suànní huángguā).
Ginger taste (姜汁味 jiāngzhīwèi): Consists of salt, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, and MSG. Representative dishes: Ginger fish (姜汁鲜鱼 jiāngzhī xiānyú), ginger chicken (姜汁仔鸡 jiāngzhī zījī).
Sweet and sour (糖醋味tángcùwèi): Consists of salt, sugar, dark vinegar, and MSG. Representative dishes: Sweet and sour lotus root (糖醋莲藕 tángcù liánǒu), sweet and sour cabbage (糖醋白菜 tángcù báicài).
The list goes on, and it might seem bizarrely complicated, but without these flavors, how else could Chengdu have been named the world's second "City of Gastronomy" by UNESCO?
Photo by Dan Sandoval.