Spices are our main concern at Épices de Cru, but the truth is spices often present their flavour best in combination with the many sauces, pastes, and other ingredients developed by the world’s great cuisines. So we present our series on pantries of the world- important ingredients to have on hand before delving into any regional cuisine.
Sichuan is, arguably, the foremost of Chinese cuisines, famous for its use of spice. And it’s not just the lovely, pointed heat of Sichuanese chiles! The unique numbing, citrusy flavours of Sichuan Peppercorn, the peppery bite of Cassia, and the sweet, aromatic, and deeply appealing Chinese Five Spice are essential elements of Southwest Chinese cuisine.
Still, these legendary spices would present a one-dimensional dish if they weren’t enhanced by the sweet, sour, spicy, or umami tastes- in sometimes millennia-old ingredients- from these Sichuan pantry essentials.
This chunky, fabulously pungent sauce is made from fermented black soybeans. It is the oldest known soybean product- once referred to by the word “shi”, meaning “great desire”, or, “addiction”, a reference to its unstoppable umami punch. Our addiction to dou chi is at its most intense for China’s most famous brand: Lao Gan Ma. This renowned brand is the starting (and often ending) point for trying black bean sauce. It is essential for Mapo Tofu, famously steamed with spare ribs, and excellent with freshwater fish.
This salty, spicy, warming sauce, made from lightly fermented broad beans, is called ‘the soul of Sichuan food.” Another ancient invention, the paste underwent many changes as it traveled around China and through the centuries, most notably by adding chilies and sugar. Each brand claims to be the most authentic- just be sure the ingredient list includes broad beans and as few additives as possible.
Chili Bean Paste is used for homestyle dishes, like homestyle tofu, or as the base for Sichuan classics like mouth-watering fish and twice-cooked pork.
Fragrant, delicate, with a long-lasting but inoffensive acidity, black vinegar is made from double-fermented black glutinous rice. The older Shanxi black vinegar, Lao Chen Cu, is sealed and aged for a deep, caramel-like flavour. The newer Zhenjiang vinegar is sweeter and more forgiving. Use Zhenjiang vinegar for your Sichuan recipes unless aged vinegar is specifically called for. Never use balsamic vinegar.
Zhenjiang Black Vinegar is used in pretty much every Sichuan dish calling for sourness. Try it with a simple cucumber salad.
This sweet, mellow and slightly musty rice wine is indispensable to Chinese cooking. The most famous yellow wine for cooking is Shaoxing wine. It is darker, more developed, with dulcet tones resulting from the inclusion of different rices, flavourings, and of course ageing. It is also easily counterfeit and frequently overpriced. Cheaper, lesser varieties, like Liaojiu (flavouring wine) deliver the sweet subtlety dishes call for. Do not use clear, harsh rice wines- it is better to substitute cooking sherry if need be.
Yellow wine is similarly ubiquitous- try it in fish-fragrant or sweet and sour sauces.
Sichuanese preserved vegetables would take a lifetime to survey, but the main categories fall into pickled and fermented camps. Bright green Zha cai are made from the stalk of the mustard green, and are intended to add sourness. However, Ya cai, the sun-dried and fermented leaves of the mustard plant, are much darker and intense, meant to add depth to the dish. Some cookbooks suggest replacing hard-to-find Ya Cai with Zha Cai, since they are from the same plant, but the fermented stink of Tianjin Preserved Vegetable is a more suitable replacement.
Ya Cai is the main flavouring in Dan Dan Noodles and Mustard Greens with Chicken and Rice.