Flavors of Sichuan

Bold and pungent ingredients create the complex, contrasting flavors for which Sichuan is famous. While testing the recipes for Matt Gross's March 2014 feature on Chengdu, China, Capital of Heat, we discovered a few essentials for cooking Sichuan dishes at home. Here are 7 ingredients we found indispensable, and where you can buy them.

Lao chou, or dark soy sauce, thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce, has a complex, slightly sweet flavor; it's used to enrich sauces and marinades. Chinkiang black vinegar--made from fermenting rice, wheat, millet, or sorghum--provides a sweet-tart balance to stir-fries, dips, and noodle dishes. Lee Kum Kee dark soy sauce 16.9 oz, $7.15 at
Koon Chun black vinegar 600-ml bottle, $10.28 at
The spice mix known as lu--typically composed of cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, cassia or cinnamon, and black cardamom-like cao guo--is used all over China to season braising liquids; in Sichuan it also gives complexity to homemade hong you, or red chile oil. Lee Kum Kee Chui Chow Chili Oil 7.2 oz., $9.00 at Make your own Hong You (Sichuan Red Chile Oil) »
Douban jiang (sometimes labeled toban djan), a maroon paste made from fermented broad beans and dried chiles, adds a rich, spicy, umami flavor to countless Sichuanese dishes. Tian mian jiang, a smooth paste of wheat flour and a variety of spices, adds salty-sweet raisiny notes to stir-fries and sauces. Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Sauce (toban djan) 8 oz, $4 at
Szechuan sweet bean paste (tian mian jiang) 16 oz, $3.99 at
In Chengdu, where chiles have pride of place, cooks commonly use five varieties: tiny but intense xiao mi la chiles [bottom left]; sweet little hong mei ren ("red beauty") chiles, which deliver waves of herbal fire [top left]; fast-attacking chao tian jiao ("heaven facing chiles") [bottom right]; erjingtiao, with a heat that hits the back of your mouth [top right]; and ye shan jiao ("wild mountain peppers"), slender chiles with a lingering floral burn [center].
Tender, mild young ginger is peeled, thinly sliced, and eaten in stir-fries and noodle dishes, while older, fibrous mature ginger is crushed and used skin-on to bring a bright flavor to braises.
Salted black dou chi, dry fermented soybeans, are prized for their savory depth, while ya cai, a crunchy, salty pickle made from chopped mustard greens, is used as a condiment and to flavor stir-fries. Dried fermented black beans (dou chi) 16 oz., $10.49 at
Yibin Yacai, two 16-oz. bags for $16.99 at
Several varieties of garlic are ubiquitous in Sichuan cookery, while Chinese scallions known as suan miao are finely chopped for garnishes.

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