For me China has been a food paradise, but frankly we struggle just to order. It usually amounts to a middle-aged lady handing us a menu entirely in Chinese, Danny throwing up his hands and one of us walking into the kitchen or walking around the restaurant awkwardly inspecting other people’s dishes and pointing at them to order. The food is mostly delicious, but just as often it is oily and only semi-spicy. Finally we were at a breaking point and at a hostel we enlisted the help of a local. Asking her about a few popular dishes in America, our new Chinese friend replied to nearly each one- that’s from Szechuan. That’s from Szechuan. Thankfully our next stop in fact was Szechuan province.
Turns out she was right. We love spicy food, but it wasn’t until Szechuan, known for its bold flavors and peppers that we really had S-P-I-C-E. Heavy on the garlic and red chili peppers, you might know it as Kung Pao Chicken, Dan Dan Noodles, Twice cooked pork and the list goes on and on. I love Szechuan food and I ordered Gong Pao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken) for dinner each of our first three nights there, mostly because I could actually order it in Chinese, but also because it’s my favorite dish. That was until my tongue went numb. Yup, that’s right. My tongue went numb.
I know, you’re thinking those chili peppers in China must be really powerful, but the secret is- it wasn’t the chili peppers. (Actually, the chili pepper comes from the Americas anyhow so they aren’t really all that different than what we have in Mexican food) Although I’ve had enough Kung Pao Chicken in my life to know that I prefer the 5 chili to the 3 chili at Chinese restaurants in America, but nothing could have prepared me for the Szechuan peppercorn. It’s not spicy, in fact its a little citrusy…but it numbs. Seriously, it numbs your tongue and mouth producing a weird tingly sensation in the middle of your meal. Locals believe it helps to balance the red chili peppers, but frankly I just can’t get used to the taste. From now on its Szechuan food all the way for me, but without the Szechuan peppercorn, thanks.
IF YOU GO: Szechuan food comes in many different varieties and although its probably best known for its spicy flavors, Szechuan cuisine also includes several preparations that aren’t spicy at all. As always in China, there is something for everyone. Chengdu is known for its hotpot, a fondue like dish whereby the diner “dips” vegetables and meats into a pot of really hot and spicy liquid. If you do it, watch the locals and by all means DO NOT drink the liquid.