What's Cookin'? spicing up your sichuan kitchen
A rundown of the basic components of a kitchen that's equipped to make home-cooked Sichuan cuisine, here or abroad.
PASTES AND SAUCES
Broadbean paste (豆瓣酱 dòubànjiàng)
Use in twice-cooked pork and fishy eggplant. Juancheng Pixian brand recommended. Sichuan factories allegedly change the flavor for distribution in different regions, so most Sichuanese chefs overseas have this shipped out by family in Sichuan. Lee Kum Kee makes a pretty good version called Chili Bean Paste for international distribution.
Sweet flour sauce (甜面酱 tiánmiànjiàng)
For twice-cooked pork. Use no more than a tablespoon, and dilute with water before adding. Lee Kum Kee's international version is called Tien Mien Djan.
Soy sauce (酱油 jiàngyóu). Add a few drops of the light version (生抽 shēngchōu) while frying most dishes. Dark (老抽 lǎochōu) is good for meat marinades.
Black vinegar (黑醋 hēicù)
For "sour" dishes such as culiu cabbage (醋柳白菜 cùliǔ báicài). Sichuan people usually use the Baoning (保宁) label, but another good one is Zhenjiang's Hengshun label (镇江恒顺), of which there are a few versions. Internationally it's known as "CHINKIANG VINEGAR" (鎮江香醋).
Tahini (sesame-seed paste) (芝麻酱 zhímajiàng)
Great for noodles and even tofu, served hot or cold. Spread it on directly, or mix with a bit of sugar and vinegar to thin and sweeten prior to adding to your dish.
Chinese cooking wine (料酒 kèjiǔ) Great in garlic broccoli. (Recommended: 王致和 brand).
Black soybeans (豆豉 dòuchǐ)
Great in moderation in fish-fragrance eggplant, twice-cooked pork, and black bean fish fried rice. Its flavor pairs well with red onions. The most fragrant brand is Yong Chuan (永川), which contains rice beer (醪糟, see below) and baijiu. International distribution tends to come from Guangdong, which makes it directly from black beans and salt and is suitable for steaming fish.
Yibin Suimi Yacai (宜宾碎米芽菜)
Great in dry-fried green bans, fried eggs, fried rice and Yibin Burning Noodles (燃面). A seemingly identical version by the same company is Suixin Yacai (碎鑫芽菜). Difficult but not impossible to find around the rest of the country and even abroad.
Pickled tofu (豆腐乳 dòufǔrǔ)
Both a great addition to your dumpling dipping saucer and a good meat marinade, you can buy it fresh in vegetable markets or jarred in stores anywhere in China or abroad.
Rice beer (醪糟 láozāo)
Great for Laozao eggs and fruity soups. Some people call it míjiǔ (米酒).
Dried red chili peppers (红辣椒 hónglàjiāo)
The whole peppers (辣椒干 làjiāogān) are not very spicy and add nice coloration to most dishes. Powdered (辣椒面 làjiāomiàn／辣椒粉 làjiāofěn) is good for making pepper oils and for noodle dishes and dumpling sauce.
Pepperocinis (野山椒 yěshānjiāo/绿泡椒 lǜpāojiāo)
Used in pepperocini beef (a Hunan dish), these are great in dishes that use broadbean paste (see above) and with barbecued or baked fish.
Huajiao (花椒 huājiāo)
Fresh red peppercorns (红花椒 hóng huājiāo) are great in most dishes, added just after everything is in the wok. Overcooking them softens their flavor. Green huajiao (青花椒 qīng huājiāo) is used in hotpot, chili chicken (辣子鸡 làzijī), and lightly in many other dishes. Because the green ones are stronger in numbing power and in flavor, a ratio of 1 green to 5 red is recommended. Huajiao powder, made from red kernels, is sprinkled onto Mapo Tofu just before serving. It can be difficult to find fresh huajiao (which has its full flavor) anywhere outside Sichuan.
Cumin (时萝 shíluó)
Great in noodles, pepper oils and on barbecued meats. Use sparingly.
Star Anise (八角 bājiǎo)
Common in hot-pot.
Fennel Seeds (小茴香 xiǎohuíxiāng)
Great in noodles and pepper oils.
Sugar (砂糖 shātáng)
Brown (known as "red" in Mandarin) (红糖 hóngtáng) or white (白糖 báitáng) are pretty interchangeable in sweet dishes like sweet and sour lotus (糖醋藕丁 tángcù ǒudīng), and can be used sparingly in eggplant dishes.
Salt (使用盐 shǐyòng yán)
Every dish needs a little.
Chicken bullion (鸡精 jījīng)
Flavor additive made from chicken.
MSG (味精 wèijīng)
Flavor additive feared by Westerners.
Bamboo-shoot flavoring (竹荪精 zhúsūnjīng)
Can act as a substitute for MSG and chicken bullion.
Rapeseed oil (菜籽油 càizǐ yóu)
One of the most common cooking oils.
Sesame oil (芝麻油 zhīma yóu
Add a teaspoon or less to any dish, to bring out a more pungent aroma.
Red pepper oil (辣椒油 làjiāo yóu)
Buy some or make it from scratch by heating cooking oil and pouring it into a jar of mostly powdered red pepper with a little green and red huajiao, cumin or fennel seeds, salt, sesame seeds, peanuts, and soy beans.
Flour (面粉 miànfěn)
Useful for thickening sauces and soups and for breading meats. A cornstarch-like substitute is bean flour (豆粉 dòufěn).
Rice (大米 dàmǐ)
Obviously, a must. Wash several times and then cook in a rice cooker or on the stove.