by Jamie Barys, Chief Eating Officer of UnTour Food Tours
So you tried the 10 best Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai and are addicted to the mala flavors of the region? You may not be ready to try Chengdu classics like rabbit’s head (麻辣兔头), husband & wife pieces of lung (夫妻肺片) or bubbling blood (毛血旺), and that’ s just fine. Sichuan food has so many great dishes to offer that you can dive deep into menus without ever getting near a plate of offal. Here are some of the province’s best dishes that will please the whole family, so long as they’re into spice!
Oil-Poached Fish 水煮鱼
You really cannot wait an hour for a seat at Yu Xin and not order their most popular dish. The catfish is brought to your table in a giant porcelain bowl with a layer of chili peppers so dense in the oil, you cannot even see the bone-in fish laying in wait. The wait staff use a slotted spoon to remove the peppers (there for color and flavor but not intended for consumption) and reveal the fish, beansprouts and others underneath.
Sichuan Pickles 泡菜
Yi Zhang Hong’s version of this pickled appetizer features the usual cabbage and carrots, but you’ll also spot the unusual Solomon’s scroll – a crunchy herb/flower that is a sturdy ferry for the flavors of the Sichuan peppercorns that spice up this simple dish. Maurya does baby lotus root in them that are almost too cute to eat … almost.
Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐
Despite this dish’s international fame, it is a relatively young dish, created in the past century by a Sichuan woman whose face was pockmarked (hence the not-so -flattering translation pock-marked woman’s tofu). Soft white tofu here is usually served with a sprinkling of pork on top, as well as chili oil and green onions, but you can find a delicious vegetarian take from pop-up Fly By Jing at Delish.
Fish Fragrant Slices of Pork/Eggplant (鱼香肉丝／茄子)
Despite the name, this dish has nothing to do with fish. A couple legends surround the denomination, but most culinary scholars agree that the dish’s ingredients were traditionally combined with fish, but one day the creator subbed in sliced pork and discovered it was even tastier. La Wei Xian does a great version of this dish with pork or eggplant – order a bowl of rice and pile the spicy chopped ingredients on for a delicious bite.
Mouth-Numbing Spicy Soup (麻辣烫)
Malatang joints are like personal hotpots; you select your raw ingredients from a refrigerator and then hand them over to the chef who boils them until al dente in a spicy broth. Tofu, green leafy vegetables, hearty tubers, quail eggs and skewers of meat are all available. Try it at Chuan Chuan Xiang Ma La Tang and don’t forget to add raw garlic and a generous squirt of peanut sauce to balance out the spiciness.
Dan Dan Mian (担担面)
This Chongqing style snack is called dan dan as the original sellers used to walk through the hilly steps of the sprawling city balancing a stick (dan) weighed down on either end with noodles and the ingredients to top the strands. The dish still arrives in snack size (50g portions) and Liu Dao Men does the best version in the city.
Garlic Pork (蒜泥白肉)
This cold dish is sometimes called hanging pork because the strips of pork belly are often served suspended by a wooden hanger. At Dengji Shiyuan, you wrap the strip of bacon up with cucumber and dip the pork in the spicy chili sauce for a delicious bite – trust me, it’s tastier than it looks.
Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁)
Don’t expect this dish to come out deep-fried like at your favorite takeaway in your home country. Instead the diced chicken is wok-fried with thick rolls of Chinese leeks and peanuts in sweet & spicy sauce with plenty of chilies. Once you try Maurya’s version (or their upscale Kung Pao foie gras), you’ll never miss the egg roll style again.
Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)
So-called because the pork belly is first boiled then wok-fried, this dish is a favorite among bacon lovers. Stir-fried with fermented black beans and chili peppers, there’s more flavor than meets the eye here, and it’s a must-order at La Wei Xian.
Spicy Chicken (辣子鸡)
The mark of a good lazi ji dish is that you can hardly see the chicken for all the dried red chilies. Don’t eat those though – they impart color and flavor, but are not kind to the digestive system. Most versions of this chop the chicken on the bone, but Yi Zhang Hong does an excellent boneless version for easy eating.
Written by Jamie Barys, Chief Eating Officer at UnTour Food Tours.
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