Chillies in China today

An essential ingredient

The use of Chillies has continued growing. Today, Chillies are truly interwoven into Chinese cuisine. Indeed. They are so broadly accepted that they have become part of the fabric of society (see note). So much so, they even have a special symbolic meaning in the Chinese New Year. Fish and red Chillies are hung as decorations during this celebration. The fish represent the wish that you may have enough fish in the year. The Chillies are apparently a reference to good luck and income

While Chillies are used throughout China, there are “hot spots” where they form a dominant part of the region’s cuisine. Three areas that are notable for their love of Chillies are Sichuan, Hunan and Chongqing. So much so that the use of them in cooking virtually identifies the nature of their cuisine. Hot and spicy. Indeed, the massive amount of Chillies that get used in cooking in these regions results in extremely spicy food that not everyone can comfortably eat. So much so that when people hear you are visiting these areas, expect them to ask whether you can handle the heat.

The cuisine is not just hot and spicy in the traditional sense of the world. It is extremely pungent. There are certain dishes like Chongqing chicken ( chicken cooked under a mound of Chillies), Zigong Xiaojian ( fried chicken with lots of Chillies) Shuizhu Yu (fish in a pungent sauce made with Chillies and Sichuan peppers), Gong Boa chicken (chicken with a scorched Chilli flavour) and Shiuzhu Niurou (boiled beef in pungent sauce) that are exceptionally spicy.

How are Chillies used ?

What are they used with ?

Chillies are used with various aromatics, herbs and spices to make  really delicious food. Garlic, onions and ginger are often combined with Chillies, Sichuan pepper and Chilli bean paste ( Doubanjiang). These are then used as a base to prepare dishes with vegetables, poultry, seafood, meat, eggs and rice.

Sichuan pepper stands out as a spice in Chinese cooking.  When it is combined with Chillies, it results in food that is exceptionally hot and spicy. While resembling the black pepper  commonly used to season food, it is not really a pepper at all.  The Sichuan pepper is actually part of the Rutaceae, family, which includes citrus.

Sichuan  pepper is also called Chinese prickly ash, Chinese pepper, Rattan pepper, and Mala pepper.  It is not also biologically related to Chillies in any way.

Besides providing a spicy flavour, Sichuan pepper also contains a chemical ( hydroxy-alpha sanshool that numbs the mouth. This sensation is particularly enjoyed in cooking in Hunan and Sichuan. The pleasant tingling sensation that develops in the mouth from eating Sichuan pepper is an integral part of the cuisine of these regions.

Other spices  used  with Chillies to make food include pepper, black cardamom, liquorice, fennel and star anise. They are used separately or blended into a power like Chinese five spice powder. Chinese five spice  powder contains Sichuan pepper, cloves, black pepper, star anise and Chinese cinnamon.

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NotLiz / CC BY NC  SA 2.0 / via Flickr

Spicy Chinese food