CHENGDU, China—One bite into the chili-strewn dish known as Water Boiled Fish, and your mouth explodes. Your forehead erupts in beads of sweat, eyes water, the nose runs, and the tongue and lips go prickly.
Sichuan food isn't just hot and spicy. Some of it is numbing.
Hardly anywhere else in China does one encounter such innocent-looking but searing food. Nor can one find a people who eat blisteringly hot food with such gusto.
"Our endurance for spicy food is higher than yours," a lunch companion, poet Guan Wuzhao, said out of compassion for a wincing visitor during a culinary visit to this provincial capital.
Sichuan, a huge province nearly the size of France on the eastern flanks of the Himalayas, is home to one of China's great regional cuisines. Sichuan food is renowned worldwide for its use of hot chilies and anesthetizing Sichuan peppercorns, which until last year had been banned for import into the United States for more than three decades. At its most piquant, Sichuan food is for the brave and those willing to perspire.
Locals offer a number of explanations for why Sichuan dishes contain such an array of hot and unusual flavors. Invariably, they describe the spiciness as good for their constitutions.
"The climate of Sichuan is cold and humid, and there is not much sunshine. The human body naturally desires something that will warm it up. If you eat hot pepper frequently, it's good for your health," explained Li Gaoxia, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Li, the chilies and peppers also help salivation and digestion, fight infection and dilate the blood vessels.
"That's why it makes you red," Li said, noting the rosy cast of a foreigner not yet fully acclimated to the Sichuan palate.
But spiciness isn't Sichuan food's only characteristic: Experts in the province point out that only a quarter of traditional Sichuan dishes provide a nuclear kick. Instead, Sichuan partisans take pride in the cuisine's use of multiple pungent flavors at once, giving rise to such items as "fish-tasting spicy" dishes and the aptly named "strange-flavor" dishes, which mix five to seven seasonings.
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"It's sweet, salty, sour, spicy and numbing, all in one," said Zhao Ying, a 23-year-old international-relations graduate student who took part in an ample dinner recently offered by the Sichuan Gourmet Association to display the gamut of Sichuan cuisine to a curious foreigner.
Discerning diners can pick out all five flavors in "strange-tasting shredded chicken" or other "strange-tasting" dishes, which are unlike anything in Western cookbooks.
Colorful names offer half the delight in consuming Sichuan cuisine. One is known as "Ants Climbing Trees." It's composed of bean thread noodles, minced pork seasoned with soy sauce, and, naturally, numbing peppercorns.
There are also Old Tofu Crab and Stewed Pig Blood Curd, as well as Three Gorges Stones Crispy Intestines and Pockmarked Lady's Bean Curd. One can hardly shy away from eating organ meat in Sichuan. One dish was made from pigs' ears.
Dandan noodles, or "carry-pole noodles," are so named for the stick-pole laborers who used to carry the low-cost noodles in buckets suspended from the ends of their poles. A spicy dollop of chili-laced sauce goes on top.
When eating Sichuan hotpot, another traditional dish, diners dip morsels of food in a vat of boiling water, hot pepper oil and spices, often sweating as the meal progresses.
"This actually has a taste like wasabi," the fiery green Japanese horseradish, said Han Weiyong, the proprietor of the Big Red Star Restaurant, as she offered another plate to visitors.
"There's a little hot pepper oil in this one, too," she added, with understatement.
"Some dishes look spicier than they are because they have very big peppers. They look all red. Other dishes don't look spicy, but they are," warned Liang Piaoyi, an advertising executive who took part in a luncheon the next day.
The hot chili peppers in Sichuan dishes are large red fruits that have a citrus-like flavor after the initial searing sensation. They're also used elsewhere in China.
In contrast, the "numbing" small Sichuan peppercorns produce a biting, tickling taste that's an essential sensation for Sichuan cooking. They numb the lips and tongue, in fact. When the chilies and peppercorns are combined, the hot-and-numbing sensation isn't easily forgotten.
The peppercorn actually is the husk of prickly ash berries. In 1968, the U.S. Agriculture Department banned importation of the Sichuan peppercorns because it was thought that they might carry citrus canker spores, which could harm the American citrus industry. Last year, the ban was lifted as long as the imported peppercorns have been heated to 140 degrees or higher to kill any spores.
Sichuan cuisine has a long history. During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), a 50-volume Sichuan cookbook was produced. Most of the food then wasn't nearly so hot. Pepper came to China from the New World only 200 to 300 years ago, said Zhang Gang, an instructor at the Sichuan Baguo Buyi Culinary Institute.
"It's hard to say how many dishes there are. You can ask only how many flavors there are, not how many dishes there are," Zhang said. "In the past, we said there were 18 different kinds of cold dishes and 15 kinds of hot dishes. But now it is countless."
Menus in some restaurants in Chengdu list hundreds of entrees.
People from other parts of China, which also have distinct cuisines, sometimes can't easily tolerate large quantities of Sichuan food.
"If people in Guangdong eat Sichuan food, they say they feel uncomfortable the next day," said Zheng Jing, a 22-year-old graduate student.
Locals say some discomfort is to be expected. At the end of one Sichuan meal, a waitress inquired how a foreigner liked the food. Told that it was, er, special, she offered an apt summation.
"The consuming of Sichuan food is both painful and happy together!" she said, trotting off.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-SPICYFOOD
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