“Two thousand years! Confucius even wrote about it,” says chef Mike Li, who heads up Yan Ting modern Sichuan restaurant at the St Regis Chengdu. He’s waxing lyrical about huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn) and its continued use in local kitchens. The linchpin of Sichuan cuisine, the mala (hot-and-numbing) effect caused by the spice is prized for its ability to help balance the body’s yin-yang – believed to suffer in the region’s moist and chilly climate. Yet while it’s been used for centuries, Chengdu’s modern-day bartenders and chefs are still finding ways to give fiery Sichuan peppercorns a very contemporary twist.
A clear example of this new approach can be found at the St Regis’ Decanter bar, where they have tinkered with a classic Bloody Mary and made it distinctly local, with the addition of a heaped spoon of dried huajiao to the shaker. They call it a Chuan Mary.
Across town, knock back a Sichuan Mule at Jing, the dapper lounge bar at The Temple House hotel. The bar’s take on the classic Moscow Mule is prepared using the traditional vodka, ginger beer and lime juice but given a lift with an iconic local flavour. “We let huajiao infuse for just a couple of days,” explains bar manager Desmond Yan. “That’s all it takes for the vodka to absorb those special qualities.”
The huajiao causes the mouth to tingle with numbness, or as Yan puts it, “zaps your tongue like those little square batteries” – an experience made more complex by the drink’s sweet and sour notes. It’s a Mule with a kick.
Meanwhile the Ritz-Carlton’s rooftop Flair bar offers a mala infusion in its modern tapas, from comforting chicken bao (steamed buns) to the edgy frog legs with Sichuan chilli dip.
Beyond the peppercorn, the most exciting indication that Sichuan cuisine is going places is the arrival of The Bridge last December. Sat atop Anshun Bridge, the sophisticated eatery is helmed by famed chef André Chiang and is dedicated to elegant Sichuan fine dining. According to the chef, his set menu aims to utilise local, seasonal produce to push the boundaries and potential of what Sichuan cuisine can be.
While most locals and visitors still stick to traditional dishes from trusted eateries, it seems as if a new wave of Sichuan cookery is ready to tickle Chengdu’s tastebuds.
Four major cuisines
Famed for it heavy use of garlic and chilli oil, Chuan – or Sichuan – is one of the four most influential cuisines of China, each defined by its distinctive style. The other three are Lu (Shandong), Yue (Guangdong) and Su (Jiangsu).
Feel the burn at these Chengdu hotspots
Jing Bar – This stylish speakeasy spikes its expert cocktails and its moreish bar snacks with heavyweights of the Sichuan spice world. thetemplehousehotel.com
Yan Ting – Chef Mike Li combines fine fare – think foie gras or black cod – with robust chilli and Sichuan peppercorn. stregischengdu.cn
Yu’s Family Kitchen – There’s no menu here, just courses of edgy Sichuan food by Chef Yu, served in a grand home. Bookings are essential. 43 Zhaoxiangzi, +86 28 8669 1985
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.