Cuisine in Western China
Western Chinese cuisine includes influences from Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi and Xinjiang. The fertile plains and terraced hills of the western Chinese heartland are fed by the Yangtze River and its tributaries that offer a garden of produce. Flavours are characteristically spicy and pungent and are often associated with chilies, though chilies are not indigenous to China.
In fact, chilies were originally brought to the region by Portuguese traders and missionaries and for the last several hundred years have been used quite extensively. One word of warning: genuine Sichuan food is extremely hot.
Though highly prominent, chilies aren't the only ingredient used in western Chinese cooking. Typical flavours also come from vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger, sesame oil and a very curious spice called Sichuan peppercorn, also known as prickly ash. Sichuan peppercorns have a very strong numbing effect on the mouth when eaten. You'll experience this feeling if you're eating an authentic version of mapo tofu; your tongue will hang out of your mouth due to its extraordinary level of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies. Not to be left out, the Sichuan version of hotpot has a fiery level of chili. Pork, freshwater fish, eggplant, soybeans, peanuts and legumes are prominent ingredients as are bamboo shoots, mushrooms and rice from the mountains. Typical cooking methods include frying, frying without oil, known as dry frying, pickling and braising as well as stir-frying. Fish flavoured shredded pork gets its curious flavour from a liberal use of ginger, garlic, vinegar, chili and spring onion but not fish.
There is a strong ethnic minority presence in this area of China and the use of goat's milk for cheese is an example of their influence. Muslim influences are also apparent in goat meat and dried beef dishes, reflecting a historically nomadic lifestyle. Try the slightly sweet-cured Yunnan ham, and "crossing-the-bridge" noodle soup.
The Xinjiang influence in western China is very much Arabic in origin, especially in lamb and mutton, which normally has a distinct Muslim flavour. In fact, you'll find authentic Arabic flat bread, baked in ovens very similar to the Indian tandoor. Mutton kebabs seasoned with toasted cumin are very popular and tasty and should not be missed out on. Fruit as well has an Arabic influence including fresh melons, grapes, apricots and raisins.
Ten Representative Western Dishes:
Ants climbing up a tree a spicy dish of bean thread noodles and pork that resembles ants climbing trees.
Bang bang chicken a classic Sichuanese cold platter made with chicken, cucumber and bean thread noodles, dressed with a sesame based sauce.
Crispy shredded beef thought to originate from Sichuan or Hunan uses carrots, spring onion, garlic and chili, sauced with sugar, vinegar and soy.
Dan dan noodles noodles with a spicy sauce made with hot chilies and ground pork.
Dry fried green beans sometimes yard long beans are used though always cut into bite size pieces, first deep fried and then stir-fried with ground pork and Sichuan peppercorns.
Kung pao chicken this classic dish from Sichuan is made with chicken, chili and peanuts.
Mapo tofu a classic Sichuan dish literally meaning "pockmarked grandmother tofu" using tofu, ground pork, copious quantities of red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, it's named after an old woman who is thought have first made this dish.
Mouthwatering beef named because this dish is so good it "makes your mouth water with anticipation" beef is cooked with a very large quantity of chili laced oil, effectively poaching the beef with hot oil, this dish is also made with fish or lamb as well.
Smoked fish originating from Guangxi, this fish dish is not smoked, but takes on a smoky quality from first being marinated with five spice, ginger, Shaoxing wine and sugar; deep fried then marinated again.
Twice cooked pork pork is first boiled, then stir-fried with peppers, chili and soy.