Anthony Bourdain describes Sichuan food as “painful yet addictive,” and for most of us, it’s spicy, numbing, savory, and umami. It uses a lot of Sichuan peppercorn and chili pepper, and it smells amazing. However, that very taste of Sichuan cuisine—that intense spiciness—doesn’t even exist in China until a little over 150 years ago. No one in China has seen a red chili pepper until 1865, and according to Chengdu Overview, a book on Chengdu history, a feasts back then were actually “light, umami, rich, with depth, and only occasionally heavy and numbing (from Sichuan peppercorn).”

How did Sichuan flavor become what it is today?

Sichuan consists of two very distinct geographical parts: Sichuan basin and Hengduan Mountains. What this means is that Sichuan is a piece of flatland that’s surrounded by mountains, and rich in water and soil resources. This geographical advantage made Sichuan an ideal place to move to during ancient wartimes, and people from all parts of China would bring with them their own spices while moving.

To preserve the abundance of fresh produce, Sichuan people mastered the art of fermentation and pickling. They invented the world-famous fermented soybean paste, countless variations of pickled vegetables, and added them to almost every classic dish. But this is just the tip of an iceberg. To truly understand Sichuan cuisine, we have to spotlight two unique ingredients: Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers.

Sichuan peppercorn is a Chinese native peppercorn that’s grown and used everywhere in China, but only the ones in Sichuan have the strong, aromatic, and numbing sensation. The Chinese call this BeiJuNanZhi, which is a phrase succinctly summarized the same plant could grow into something completely different in a new environment. Lucky for Sichuan, their peppercorns are something truly special.

Chili pepper is a new member of the Chinese produce family. The Philippines brought them to Guizhou in the 1860s, and the Guizhou locals then introduced them to Sichuan through the Hunan/Guangzhou migration movement in the late 1800s. Before then, the “spiciness” Chinese refers to were largely the taste of ginger.

Three Main Styles of Sichuan Food

Sichuan food is categorized into three main styles primarily defined by the river that cuts vertically across the Sichuan region, the Minjiang River. The three styles are:

- Upper river, which is non-spicy and exquisite.

- Lower river, which is spicy, bold and practical.

- Small river (or inner river), which is weird and creative.

In the states, the food we’re most familiar with today is the lower river style.

The upper river style belonged to the rich who lived in the capital of Sichuan. This style was the ultimate form of art and luxury, and required a very delicate palette to enjoy. The signature dishes—like tea smoked duck and “water” boiled cabbage—were non-spicy, and emphasized heavily on knife skills.

The lower river style belonged to the lower class living in the Chongqing city area. This style of cooking is heavily influenced by immigrants who brought to Sichuan their hometown ingredients, like chili peppers mentioned above. The taste was generally bold, daring, spicy and heavy. Some of the most classic dishes are spicy boiled beef and mapo tofu.

The small river style belonged to the businessmen who controlled the salt industry in the inner Sichuan area. In China, businessmen are historically viewed as third-tier citizens, with a social status lower than politicians and scholars. To elevate their social images, the businessmen would often host feasts that imitate the ones from the royal family. Lacking skillful chefs or knowledge in handling exquisite ingredients, however, caused their dishes to look somewhat weird and creative at the same time. For example, one of the small rivers most famous dish is spicy marinated rabbit heads, which are red, spicy rabbit heads served on a big plate.

During the cultural revolution, Mao demanded those who worked for aristocrats to be re-educated in the labor camps. Because of this, some of the greatest Sichuan chefs changed careers, fled to Taiwan, or even committed suicide. The upper river style hence experienced a devastating “cleanup,” and the spotlight began to shift to the lower river and small river styles, which is the Sichuan food we know of today.