I had the opportunity to travel to China this winter break, and I was exposed to the complex cuisine of the diverse country. The Chinese food we all know and love — dare I say, “American Chinese food” — often masks the heterogeneity of China’s regional culinary traditions, despite how tasty and convenient our favorite dishes may be. Hunan, Cantonese and Zhejiang food each bring something very different to the table. One ingredient in particular, the Szechuan peppercorn, symbolizes our misunderstanding of Chinese cuisine and the difference between an authentic dish and our oversimplified take-out.
For those who have never tried these enigmatic peppercorns, they numb your taste buds and leave a peppery, spicy, sour flavor lingering on your tongue. The chemical sensation feels similar to a very mild electric current constantly running through your mouth. It’s weird — really unlike any other culinary ingredient, and it takes some getting used to. But after a few bites, I found myself infatuated with the unique effects of these peppercorns and unable to resist the allure of Szechuan cuisine.
The Chinese call the sensation ma la, which translates as numbing and spicy. Ma la is a hallmark of the Szechuan region in the southwest of the country, but the peppercorns are typically left out of dishes found in the surrounding regions. A Szechuan broth-based stew known as a hot pot teems with ma la, creating a dish incredibly different than the hot pots of the surrounding provinces of China. Chinese cuisine’s regional variation, often neglected in America, is in fact a key aspect of Chinese cuisine.
Szechuan peppercorns represent all of the problems with the general American interpretation of Chinese food; it’s use departs from the emphasis on saccharine, crowd-pleasing, oily dishes that dominate our menus. Sale of the ingredient was banned from the United States from 1968 through 2005, and thus American palates have been denied the distinct pleasure of true Szechuan flavor.
“But sesame chicken and beef with broccoli are so good,” you may point out; “American Chinese food may not be exactly authentic but it’s a delicious and familiar choice to fill me up for dinner.” However valid that may be, taking a culinary risk can yield great rewards. I crave those established dishes as much as anyone, but failure to explore the varieties of Chinese cookery is like eating with your head in the sand. You’re missing out on something exciting.
Granted, it’s not so bad to keep ordering in from Apollo or Jade Garden for dinner. I love American Chinese food, as fraudulent as it may be. But for those seeking a new culinary experience, adventures await in Chinese regional cuisine.
For those who love intense spice, Hunan food is known for its heat. Many Cantonese dishes from southern China can be found on American menus, but the region offers far more than the hackneyed versions of the food we order in. The spices of India are common in western China, creating some dishes that I would never have thought I would see in a Chinese restaurant. And, of course, Szechuan serves up the puzzle of ma la. Kind of like those extra-hot Buffalo wings you love despite the pain they assault you with, a dish swarming with Szechuan peppercorns will keep you eating more because the only momentary escape from the grip on your tongue is to shove more food in your mouth.
Not all authentic Chinese dishes share the appeal of an exciting new approach to the cuisine. Many are unapologetically traditional and would likely not bode well across the Pacific. Stewed soft shell turtle with beef testes and bull genitals — on the menu of my first meal in China — failed to seduce my adventurous side. I was excited to try new flavors and to eat genuine Chinese food, but I drew the line somewhere before two parts of a bovine penis accompanying turtle meat on my plate.
Visiting China was eye-opening, but, most importantly for me, it was also a culinary experience (mouth-opening, if you will). I encourage everyone to order something wholly unfamiliar next time you eat in a Chinese restaurant, or any restaurant for that matter. The authentic dishes are often there, waiting to be ordered by a daring American. You may find a flavor combination that you never expected. Or, it may feel like someone is forcibly holding a battery to your pepper-filled taste buds. Either way, I think you will like it.
Original Author: Zachary Siegel