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  • Writer's pictureQ. Edward Wang

The Global Appeal of Pungency: Sichuanese Food as Chinese Food

Chinese food is known for its diversity. But in the last two decades, a new trend is emerging: an increasing number of people have turned to eating spicy Chinese food. In particular, Sichuanese cuisine has become their favorite. And the phenomenon is seen in both China and abroad. Does globalization dull our palatable senses? A glimpse of the history of Sichuanese cuisine, which is relatively short, seems to give us a “yes,” fortunately or unfortunately. Jacques Gernet (1921-2018), the famed sinologist, once wrote that Sichuanese restaurants in the Song period (960-1279) had used “pimento” to spice up the dishes they served. But this has proven to be a glaring mistake, for chili pepper (capsicum annuum), or pimento, the ingredient for making spicy food, did not reach China until the sixteenth century. Moreover, in the first hundred years after its appearance, the plant was more appreciated for its bright color than its use in cooking among the Chinese.

Of course, the Sichuanese were long known for their preference for “hot-and-fragrant dishes,” as recorded by a fourth-century local historian. But what they then used were Sichuan pepper, which is native to the region, ginger and cornel. Despite its name, the Sichuan pepper creates numbness in the mouth; but unlike chili pepper and black pepper—the latter was introduced to China from approximately the third century—it does not produce a hot or pungent flavor in food. That is, had the dishes served in Sichuanese restaurants in Song China been spicy, it was most likely due to the use of black pepper, which was/is called “胡椒hujiao” in Chinese—the prefix “胡hu” suggests its “foreignness,” in comparison with “花椒huajiao,” or the Sichuan pepper. When chili pepper arrived in China, it came to be called “辣椒lajiao,” literally meaning “hot pepper.” One probably could say that Sichuanese cuisine is so pungent because it often uses all three peppers, making its dishes either extremely satisfying for those who prefer hot food, or “lethal” for those who have not built up the tolerance.

But the fact is: It was only from the early twentieth century that Sichuanese cuisine became associated with spiciness. In 2019 two books were published in China. Lan Yong, a historical geographer at Southwest University in Sichuan, authored History of the Sichuanese Cuisine and Cao Yu, a US-trained anthropologist at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, wrote History of Spicy Foods in China. Lan points out that Sichuanese food acquired its reputation for spiciness only a century old —as late as the early twentieth century, according to Lan’s sampling, barely half of the dishes served in the restaurants in Sichuan were piquant. This is unsurprising, for Sichuan was not the first province the chili pepper reached on its route to China. Cao Yu believes that the pepper first became an ingredient in cooking in Guizhou—the locals there used it as a substitute for salt to make food more palatable; whereas Brian Dott, author of The Chili Pepper in China, finds that the American plant first reached Zhejiang before spreading to the rest of the country.

How did, then, Sichuanese cuisine become equated with spicy foods? How did hot Sichuanese dishes, such as Kung-Pao chicken, twice-cooked pork, and Pock-Marked Mother Chen’s bean curd, gain such immense popularity in recent decades? The answers to them seem to lie in the two massive migration trends in modern Chinese history. The first occurred in the Qing period (1644-1911), when Sichuan received a good number of immigrants from China’s coastal regions where chili pepper had already been used in food preparation. The second appeared from the 1980s, when Sichuan, one of the most populated provinces in China, exported its people, mostly as laborers, to the rest of the country, helping to propagate these spicy dishes. The above-mentioned famous Sichuanese dishes, in addition to fish-fragrant pork slivers, man-and-wife meat slices, and Chongqing hotpot, have not only been featured in the menus of Sichuanese restaurants, they have also been called 江湖菜Jianghu cai (lit. rivers & lakes dishes) and served in other restaurants. The term Jianghu cai can indeed mean “migratory/itinerant dishes,” attesting to their close connection with the migration and the country’s urbanization, a subsequent phenomenon.

Why do people turn to spicy food? In particular, why do the migrants and urbanites find them attractive? Scientists have offered a variety of explanations for the outcomes, or “benefits,” of eating peppery food, ranging from stimulation of appetite and activation of TRPV1 to enhancement of energy metabolism, production of thermogenesis and formation of a negative energy balance (i.e. weight loss). But many have also observed that physiological factors notwithstanding, there are psychological, cultural and sociological reasons as well. Surveys have found that prior exposure to spicy food actually plays a major role in nurturing the dietary preference. And for those without previous experience, friendship, peer-pressure, and comradery tend to be the main factors for taking the plunge. That is, while the burning and numbing sensations associated with eating fiery Sichuanese foods, or any peppery foods for that matter, can be addictive and thrilling, many people first acquire a liking for the stuff because of social occasions with friends or colleagues. And such social occasions often take place in urban settings. Urbanity is important in that as people work later into the evening, it is more likely for them to crave mid-night snacks with friends in food stands, pubs, and restaurants for relaxation. Spicy (Chinese) foods are more attractive because, on those occasions, you eat not to fill up your stomach but to alleviate work-related stress, a common experience shared by today’s youth in many corners of the world. Whatever the causes, eating spicy food has indeed become a global trend, led by the young generation. (The changing culinary preference in Japan is a case in point: studies have found that while the Japanese in general shy away from spicy food, its young generation has built up more tolerance in recent years.) As Chinese foods are expanding their global presence, it seems Sichuanese cuisine has been growing in its attraction at a fast pace and outshining other culinary schools in and from China.

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