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 amazon.com
Koon Chun black vinegar 600-ml bottle, $10.28 at amazon.com Todd Coleman
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 amazon.com Make your own Hong You (Sichuan Red Chile Oil) » Ariana Lindquist (fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon, cao guo); Todd Coleman 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 amazon.com
Szechuan sweet bean paste (tian mian jiang) 16 oz, $3.99 at asiansupermarket365.com Todd Coleman
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]. Ariana Lindquist; Todd Coleman (ye shan jiao) 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. Todd Coleman 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 amazon.com
Yibin Yacai, two 16-oz. bags for $16.99 at amazon.com Todd Coleman
Several varieties of garlic are ubiquitous in Sichuan cookery, while Chinese scallions known as suan miao are finely chopped for garnishes. Todd Coleman