Why You’ll Love Szechuan Cooking

Every place from McDonald's to Trader Joe's is embracing Szechuan cuisine. And, no, it's not just another form of Chinese takeout.

It used to be that the only place to experience Szechuan cooking was China’s Sichuan province—a region located in the southwestern part of the country. Now, however, you can belly up to the counter at McDonald’s for McNuggets with a side of Szechuan sauce or even pop a frozen Trader Joe’s dinner in the oven for a quick Szechuan fix. This style of Chinese food is growing in popularity, which makes us wonder what the hype all about.
 

It’s distinct from other Chinese food

When it comes to Chinese food, we’re most familiar with our favorite takeout dishes. But that’s just a drop in the ocean of Chinese cuisine. Regional specialities, like sweet Cantonese dishes and hot and sour Hunan foods, are all delicious in their own right. Szechuan cooking, though, is particularly unique. Sichuan is known for its dishes loaded with beef, rice, vegetables and, of course, Szechuan (or Sichuan) pepper. We can get down with that.

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It’s perfectly spicy

Szechuan pepper is the trademark ingredient in Szechuan cuisine. Unlike the engine-hot chili peppers that spring to mind, Szechuan pepper doesn’t carry a lot of heat. That’s because it’s not even a pepper at all, instead the regional spice is made from tiny peppercorn made from the dried husk of an ash shrub. These tiny pink peppercorn provide a kick of citrusy flavor that marries well with ingredients like ginger, soy and steamed veggies. Szechuan pepper is also unique as it gives off a tingling—almost mouth-numbing—sensation. (Kind of like when you eat a lot of peppermint!) Because of this, the spic pairs exceptionally well with hotter chilis, another common ingredient in Szechuan cooking.

Szechuan peppers are the main component of the popular Chinese five-spice blend, which includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel and anise. Want to give it a try? These five-spice chicken wings are a great place to start.

It’s great for garlic-lovers

Mashed garlic is often combined with chili oil and soy sauce in Szechuan cooking. It’s a great flavor combo for garlic-lovers (and here are some of our favorite garlic recipes). This mash-up makes a good base for traditional dishes like kung pao chicken, though it’s referred to as gong bao ji ding in China.

Get our kung pao recipe right here.

Szechuan cooking is great comfort food

On a cold day, there’s no beating an authentic hot pot. This dish consists of a simmering pot of broth filled with various tasty ingredients like egg noodles, eggs, meats, veggies, tofu and even dumplings—we’ve got a great recipe right here. What makes this dish so distinct, however, is the addition of Szechuan peppers and chilis incorporated in the broth. It helps all those basic ingredients come alive.

Feeling inspired? Get experimenting! Pick up a jar of Chinese five-spice at the store, or learn how to make your own (plus 12 more seasonings) here.

When you’ve whipped up a crowd-pleasing recipe, be sure to submit it to Taste of Home to share with cooks across the country! Learn how to submit a recipe today.

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Kristine Hansen
A former editor of a regional home and garden magazine, where she edited the entertaining section, Kristine writes for national travel, design and food outlets about culinary trends. Her book on Wisconsin cheese serves as a love letter to her adopted state of Wisconsin and she loves to travel in search of regional cultural foods.