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Sichuan chili adds spice of life to regional cuisines

RICK from the Adult Swim animated series “Rick and Morty” longs for one last taste of McDonald’s Szechuan sauce, like everybody else.

Last Saturday, thousands of people showed up at select McDonald’s stores in the US to purchase the limited-time Szechuan sauce, a long-discontinued condiment for Chicken McNuggets created in 1998 to coincide with The Walt Disney Company’s animated feature film “Mulan.”

The sauce was popularized by the Cartoon Network’s “Rick and Morty.” The limited-time offering caused riots on streets prompting police to intervene, as most fans were left empty-handed. The promotion also caused an online backlash with angry posts flooding social media.

On eBay, new, unopened packets of the sauce were auctioned for nearly US$1,000. Upset fans of “Rick and Morty” have demanded McDonald’s to reintroduce Szechuan sauce to the menu, and McDonald’s listened.

In a statement released last Sunday, McDonald’s said: “Szechuan sauce is coming back once again this winter. And instead of being one-day-only and limited to select restaurants, we’re bringing more — a lot more — so that any fan who’s willing to do whatever it takes for Szechuan sauce will only have to ask for it at a nearby McDonald’s.”

Though named Mulan Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce, nostalgic fans have described its taste as un-Sichuanese, sweet-and-sour BBQ sauce.

And Mulan herself didn’t come from Sichuan Province. In history, the woman warrior who lived in the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (AD 420–589) came from northern China.

But spicy food is indeed an integral part of Chinese cuisine. Across China, many provinces are known for their unique spicy chili sauces.

People across the world have also come to love the spicy Chinese condiments. A few years ago, luxury goods website Gilt was selling Lao Gan Ma, a chili sauce with fermented soy beans, for US$6 a bottle to foreign buyers, roughly five times its price in China.

Vito Bellomo, an Italian chef who has been living in Shanghai for three years and co-founder of We Love Food Consulting, is a fan of spicy Chinese cuisine.

“I absolutely love Sichuan peppercorns and I love all the spices,” he said. “Like mapo tofu, I remember the first time I ate it, it was a shock, but after that I absolutely loved the spicy Sichuan foods.”

The mapo tofu recipe uses Pixian doubanjiang, a prominent spicy sauce that’s considered as the soul of the dish.

In addition to loving spicy Chinese dishes and condiments like Lao Gan Ma, Bellomo also uses Sichuan chilis and spices in his Western-style dishes, like replacing the jalapeno peppers in guacamole with fresh Sichuan chilis to present fresher tastes.

This week, we will take a look at some iconic Chinese spicy chili sauces that have added fiery flavors to the regional cuisines.

Sichuan: Pixian doubanjiang

Sichuan is the capital of spicy cuisine, where people can eat almost anything with chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns.

The spicy dishes in Sichuan and Chongqing often incorporate a mix of peppers, spices and sauces to create layers of flavor.

For example, the Sichuan-style chili oil is made by pouring hot oil, already seasoned with dried peppercorns, ginger, garlic and green onion into ground dried chili pepper, sesame seeds and fried peanuts. A variety of chili peppers are used to enrich the flavors, including the medium-hot “heaven facing pepper” and the very spicy capsicum frutescens from Yunnan Province.

The most famous spicy condiment from Sichuan is the Pixian doubanjiang (fermented broad bean sauce) originated from the county of Pixian.

It’s considered the soul of Sichuan cuisine and one of the few food products listed as national intangible cultural heritage.

Chen Shouxin, who lived during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was credited as the creator of the Pixian doubanjiang, who improved the secret recipe handed down in his family to make the iconic condiment.

Located in northwest of Chengdu, Pixian County has favorable natural conditions to grow broad beans and chili peppers as well as making high-quality sauce. The humid subtropical climate also plays an important role in the natural fermentation process of brewing the sauce.

The ingredients required to make Pixian doubanjiang include fermented broad beans, soybeans, rice, flour and the erjingtiao chili pepper. Full of intense flavors, this sauce is used in a variety of Sichuan dishes including mapo tofu and huiguorou, or the double cooked pork slices.

In Pixian, there is also a Sichuan Cuisine Museum, located in the Ande Township, that celebrates the regional culinary culture, especially Pixian doubanjiang.

On the Mala Market (themalamarket.com), a US-based online shopping site of Chinese spices, sauces and pickles, a packet of Pixian doubanjiang (454 grams) retails for US$10.

Hunan: Duojiao

Though Sichuan is hailed as the home of spicy cuisine, the Hunan people can actually tolerate seriously spicy foods that would scare people from other provinces.

A large amount of fresh and dried chili peppers are used in Hunan cuisine, which is especially known for the duojiao chili sauce.

Duojiao, which means chopped chili in Chinese, is a pickled chili sauce that can be eaten directly as a side or added to various dishes. It’s made from very small, hot fresh chili peppers diced with garlic and ginger, and then seasoned with salt and white distilled liquor before sealing in jars to pickle for a few days.

One of the most famous duojiao dishes in Hunan cuisine is fish head steamed with duojiao, a very spicy and salty dish best prepared with big-head carp. Sometimes both red and yellow colored duojiao is used to create more vibrant presentation.

Guizhou: Lao Gan Ma

Guizhou is the home of the most famous Chinese chili condiment — Lao Gan Ma, or “the Godmother.” Tao Huabi created the brand in 1996, and it’s now the biggest chili sauce company in China.

The product line features more than a dozen different spicy condiments, but the all-time classic is the original chili oil with fermented soy beans, a dark colored sauce filled with chopped chilis and beans.

There are so many ways to enjoy Lao Gan Ma, as a spread on steamed buns or morning pancakes, as a condiment to season dishes or as a dipping sauce for hotpot.

Tao once said proudly that where there are Chinese people, there are Lao Gan Ma chili sauces.

Guizhou also has another unique spicy condiment called ciba lajiao, which is a glutinous-textured chili pepper sauce made by grinding dried chilis from Huaxi, which have been previously soaked in water with tender ginger and garlic.

Ciba lajiao is the key ingredient in the renowned Guizhou-style chicken with chilis. It can also be used to make dipping sauce for hotpot or chili oil.

Hainan: Yellow lantern sauce

China’s southernmost province, Hainan, is home of a unique lantern-shaped, bright yellow chili that cannot be found elsewhere.

With sufficient sunshine and abundant rainfall, the island is a favorable growing environment for the yellow lantern chilis, especially the province’s southern regions.

This particular type of chili is one of the hottest chilis in China and commonly made into a hot sauce, an ingredient the locals cannot live without. The yellow lantern sauce is similar to the Hunan duojiao, but uses dried yellow lantern chilis instead of fresh ones.

First, the sun dried chilis are crushed into small pieces, then the garlic paste and salt are added to provide more flavors. The mixture is then sealed in a glass jar with some oil to prolong the shelf life.

At most restaurants on the island, it’s provided as a free condiment to accompany all kinds of dishes. The yellow lantern sauce is a very popular local specialty that travelers often bring home as gifts.

Shaanxi: Sizzling chili oil

Home of the terracotta warriors, the northwestern province of Shaanxi is famous for its spicy cuisine, to be more specific, the sizzling chili oil.

The Shaanxi sizzling chili oil, or youpolazi, highlights the fragrance and spiciness of the chilis with a variety of spices and seasonings, including grounded Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, star anise and the Thirteen Spices. An essential ingredient is toasted white sesame seeds, which is the key of making a very aromatic chili sauce.

To make the sizzling chili oil, one only needs to combine all the spices and ground chilis in a bowl, heat up a saucepan of oil to about 80 percent hot and splash a portion over the chilis, add the toasted white sesame seeds, then let the oil cool down to about 50 percent hot and pour it over the chilis again to draw out the spicy flavors.

The people in Shaanxi eat several dishes, especially the noodles, with youpolazi. The iconic biangbiang mian is the best dish to enjoy the hot chili sauce because it features only two ingredients, a wide, thick hand-pulled noodle that’s shaped like a belt and sizzling chili oil.

Guangdong: Chaoshan garlic chili sauce

Known for the fresh ingredients and light flavors, the Cantonese cuisine actually has a chili sauce that’s much more gentle and mild than the ones mentioned above.

The Chaoshan (Teochew) garlic chili sauce is composed of red chilis, shallots, garlics, olive kernels and fermented soy beans. The fragrant, salty yet not so spicy condiment is best served with the local rice noodle soups.

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