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How Sichuan Food Became Mainland China’s Go-To for Dining Out

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The presence of Cantonese restaurants in the US — due largely to historical reasons — has made weekend dim sum with a pot of tea a gastronomic highlight for Chinese communities overseas. In mainland China, however, it’s Sichuan food that has largely defined dining out in major cities, having become arguably the most popular regional cuisine in the country.

The importance of Sichuan food has also been recognized internationally; in 2011, its capital city Chengdu became the first city in Asia — and second in the world — to receive a UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

Of the regional cuisine restaurants registered on Meituan — China’s largest food delivery platform — eateries serving Sichuan food made up the largest proportion in 2019. It beat out all other Chinese regional cuisines as well as popular international food choices, according to China F&B Big Data 2020 — a joint report by Meituan and new media platform Restaurant Owners Internal Reference (餐厅老板内参).

According to Meituan’s database, Sichuan cuisine made up the highest percentage of eateries in 2017 and 2018 as well, growing from 4.4% in 2017 to 4.8% in 2018. Meituan also reported that young Chinese millennials born in the ‘90s are the driving force behind this trend, accounting for around 51.4% of all dining out.

In China, you can even find classic Sichuan dishes in restaurants that don’t specialize in Sichuan cuisine, such as mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐), kung pao chicken (gongbao jiding, 宫保鸡丁) and fish-flavored shredded pork (yuxiang rousi, 鱼香肉丝) — a testament to how popular Sichuan dishes are nationwide.

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We look at some of the reasons why Sichuan cuisine became the go-to for diners in mainland China — and how this could be changing in the future.

Seven Flavors and Eight Tastes

Located in southwestern China, Sichuan has historically been seen as a “land of plenty” (天府之国) due to its climate and topography. Fertile soil and a wetter climate have impacted the robustness of its agriculture, and in turn its cooking.

One important historical factor in the spread of Sichuan cuisine is its population of migrant workers that moved from Sichuan to other parts in China. As early as the 1980s — when China’s household registration system, or hukou, began to relax its policies — these workers largely ended up in wealthier coastal cities in south and southeastern China, increasing from 6 million to 10.5 million between 2000 and 2010.

2010 proved to be a turning point for Sichuan in reversing this outbound migration trend for a number of reasons — such as improving economic opportunities inside the province — but its migrant workers had already left their mark by introducing Sichuan food to mainland Chinese cities.

Two of the defining characteristics of Sichuan food are its two most famous types of spice — “aromatic spicy” (xiangla, 香辣) and “numbing spice” (mala, 麻辣). Compared to other cuisines known for their hotness in China, some diners perceive Sichuan spiciness as mellower, and therefore easier to digest for those who did not grow up with a spicy food culture.

“Sichuan food is simply tasty. I like how I sweat from eating it every time. It is very refreshing,” says Zhao Zijian, a 21-year old male student from Zhejiang province, about his love for Sichuan cuisine. “Hunan food is actually very spicy for me as the chili pepper is cut very small, and there’s usually a lot of it, adding a lot of hotness to the meat and other vegetables in the dish,” he adds. “However, Sichuan’s kind of spiciness is different — it smells good and is not that spicy.”

According to the China F&B Big Data 2020 report, “spicy” is the most preferred flavor profile for diners born in the ‘90s and ‘00s — and Sichuan food is accommodating this trend.

Given the spread of Sichuan cuisine today, it’s hard to believe that the province wasn’t known for its chilis until 300 years ago, when the chili pepper was introduced from Latin America, helping to lay the foundations for modern-day Sichuan cuisine.

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Before that, locals would use alternatives such as the peppercorn — the only source of its famous mala spiciness until that point — dogwood, ginger, and garlic, which were then more widely available. A common reason ascribed to Sichuan people’s preference for spicy food is a belief originating in traditional Chinese medicine: given the region’s climate, it’s said that consuming spicy food can help the body get rid of humidity.

While there are many reasons that account for the success of Sichuan cuisine, an often-cited one is that it offers a wide variety of delicious flavors. “Each dish has its own style — a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors,” says Sun Yan, General Manager of Sichuan restaurant chain Nantangguan (南堂馆) in Chengdu, referring to an old saying about Sichuanese food (“一菜一格,百菜百味”) that perhaps speaks best to its flavor and diversity.

Indeed, Sichuanese chefs are known for combining spices to create flavors that extend beyond just “spicy.” Connoisseurs of the cuisine will know that there are “seven flavors” (七味) and “eight tastes” (八滋) in traditional cooking from this province. The “seven flavors” refer to the more general flavor profiles often found in Sichuanese dishes — sweet, sour, numbing, spicy, bitter, fragrant and salty — while the “eight tastes” are braised (ganshao干烧), sour, hot, fish-flavored, dry-fried (ganbian, 干煸), “odd-flavored” (guaiwei, 怪味, a mix of salty, sweet, spicy, numb, and sour flavors), peppercorn-flavored (jiaoma, 椒麻), and “red oil” (hongyou, 红油).

Having these flavors in the cookbook has historically given chefs more ingredients to play with, and diners more options to choose from.

More Than Just Hotpot

As an important facet of its culinary heritage, Sichuan-style hotpot has become a symbol of Sichuan food across China and around the globe, thanks to the emergence of giant hotpot chains such as Haidilao (海底捞), Xiao Long Kan (小龙坎), and Da Long Yi (大龙燚). Aside from a love of hotpot’s communal style eating in general, Sichuan hotpot’s growth can also be attributed to policy support from its local government for the hotpot industry, intended to create better quality control and wider brand awareness both within and outside the province.

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Although hotpot has become so popular that it’s now considered a separate phenomenon from the regional cuisine it originated from — as it was in the China F&B Big Data 2020 report — Sichuan-style hotpot has played a significant role in familiarizing Chinese people with its flavors and, above all, its signature spiciness.

In addition, due to its reliance on oils and seasonings over fresh ingredients, Sichuan food has proven far easier to mass-produce. The standardization of Sichuan food also gave rise to seasoning packets available at supermarkets all over China for some of its classic dishes — for instance, mapo doufu, and boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili (suancaiyu, 酸菜鱼) — making it easier for both restaurant owners and amateur chefs to replicate them.

After decades of mass expansion, however, Sichuan restaurants have been facing a number of challenges in recent years. While it still has the highest market share compared to other regional cuisines, the overall number of Sichuan restaurants decreased by over 40,000 nationwide in 2017. Industry experts at the time claimed it probably had to do with the poor ambiance and cleanliness of many lower-end Sichuan restaurants, which failed to keep up with trends that younger diners closely follow.

However, the proliferation of these restaurants rebounded not long after. While the growth of other regional cuisines, such as that of Henan and Xinjiang, outpaced that of Sichuan restaurants in 2019, the number of Sichuan restaurants also increased over 9.8% percent that same year.

On top of restaurant-related concerns, the heavy use of salt and oil in traditional Sichuan cooking has alienated some diners, as healthy and light eating have become an increasingly popular trend in the Chinese mainland.

These trends pose questions for the popularity of the cuisine going forward. “We need to get creative,” says well-known Sichuanese chef Zhu Wanchen in a recent interview. “First of all, we need to be inventive with the cooking style. The heavy seasoning, salt, and oil no longer fit with new lifestyles. We need to be creative, and make the way that Sichuan food is presented more delicate, high-end, and trendy.”

Some diners are on board with this idea. “[Sichuan food] has become one of my necessities now — I need it once in a while to stimulate my taste buds. However, if there was less oil and salt added into the dishes, I would eat more,” observes Jin Qianwen, a 27-year old Shanghai-based nutritionist who grew up in Zhejiang, a province known for its lighter fare and freshwater seafood. Jin says that she used to eat lightly-flavored dishes all the time, but the frequency at which she orders Sichuan food has increased over the years.

“Eating Sichuan food makes me really happy, and it’s really stress relieving,” she says. “I’m always in the mood for Sichuan food.”

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.