Shades of Heat


The ‘heat’ that you get from the glowing-red food in your plate is never of a singular sensation, not in the culinary culture of China. For a country of enormous size and population, it is inevitable that the dietary style in each region will stand in its own character. 


When it comes to phenomenal spicy cooking across this huge nation, one would most likely encounter two styles: Hunan and Sichuan- the provinces that are widely known for fiery cuisines; and they have quite different ideas about ‘mouth-burning’ experience. The dietary feature of a region is majorly affected by its natural conditions and socio-economical development. And for that reason, China’s culinary map is divided in four main styles: sweet south, savoury north, piquant east and spicy west. “These approaches are the fruit of history- the life experience of generations in a certain area,” says Jin-Yu Huang, a specialist in Chinese culinary cultures. 


However, the hot persona of Hunan and Sichuan provinces is more inclined to the influence of nature. The reputation of burning-hot cuisines in both regions is majorly attributed to the weather: regular drizzle and stuffiness pretty much sum up the atmospheric feature of both provinces. And in the light of Chinese medical ideology, the body needs a stimulant of heat to drive out excessive liquid retained in the system due to the weather. In addition, such weather impedes the urge to enjoy meals, and chillies help increase appetite while propelling metabolism in the body. Under such circumstances, these regions have built a reputation of ‘home to chilli eaters.’ 


For most people, ‘spicy’ is denoted as a prickly sensation in the mouth that makes one pant and desperately reach for cold water. But the chilli eaters, especially those from the two regions, would say differently. “The two provinces boast cuisines with exceptional heat of different types,” says Yu Yen, a chef from Sichuan with 12-year experience of home cooking from both regions. Yen starts with a general depict, “Hunan style contains a tangy flavour usually from vinegar whereas Sichuan style strikes the tongue with a prickly numbness.”  Then Yen further explains the diverse approaches to cooking with chillies in each province. “Hunan style adopts the technique of immersing ingredients and chillies so as to create flavoured cooking sauce.” A common procedure of such conduct would be mixing crushed Big-red chillies, dried chillies and peppers in vinegar and sesame oil and let the mixture sit for a period of time before using it. By doing so, the flavour of all the spices and the heat of chillies would merge in the oil-vinegar. The condiment is then commonly used to make household cuisines and thus contributes to the reputation of ‘tangy-hot’ sensation.  


Sichuan-style cooking delivers a flavour of multiple layers. It commonly uses several spices such as ‘sky-pointing chillies,’ prickly ash, peppers and ginger; “these ingredients produce a stimulating quality in Sichuan cuisines,” says Yen. The well-known numbness that Sichuan cuisines deliver mainly comes from the prickly ash, “but it always depends on the balance of all the spices and hot chillies that go into the cooking,” stresses Yen. Compared to such prominent character, Hunan cooking style stresses on the art of marinating, which usually turns out to be mouth burning. However, Hunan-style cooking is still hard to be precisely defined. “Every household has its own recipe,” says Tien Lung Chen, a restaurant owner in Hunan Province. Chen draws on his family as an example, “my family takes pride in the recipes that have been passed on through generations.” He then reveals one of the ‘Chens secret recipes’: marinating crushed red chilles, garlic, fermented soybeans in tea leaf oil. 


The dietary habit of a region is much attributed to the environment and socio-economical status and the origin of plants used in cuisines. The food made exceptionally hot and stinging has a lot to do with the stuffy weather in both provinces; it is the result of a long course of historical evolution. Although standing the same kind of prestige, the cooking styles of Hunan and Sichuan provinces present spiciness in different ways. Each division of cooking involves different skills and concepts to bring out the best of the chillies- in this case- tangy hot and prickly hot.