I’m not good at eating spicy food, in fact in Germany I never eat anything spicy at all, even though there are plenty of restaurants where I can try it. The closest to spicy I got to was one time at the kebab shop, where I forgot to tell them not to put chilli peppers in my doner kebab.
Coming to Chengdu I knew I had to get used to eating spicy food as the province of Sichuan is famous for it. The hot pepper was introduced into China from South America around the end of the 17th century. Once it came to Sichuan, it became a popular food flavouring. Sichuan has high humidity and many rainy or overcast days. Hot pepper helps reduce internal dampness, so hot pepper was used frequently in dishes, and hot dishes became the norm in Sichuan cuisine.
The beginning was hard for me, I already started to cough at the smallest amount of food and in my mouth there was no other taste because my mouth was burning from the hot pepper. What was especially hard for me was the Sichuan pepper, which is not spicy, it just gives you a funny tingling sensation, making your mouth feel like it’s gone numb. After trying more and more dishes I have now gotten used to the spice and can actually taste the food.
While some people recommend to just eat as much spicy as you can right from the start, I wouldn’t do this. It’s neither good for your taste buds, nor for your stomach. From my own experience I think it would be good to start with a typical Chinese meal – sharing different kinds of dishes, so you can choose a few spicy and a few non-spicy dishes.
One of my all-time favourites is gōngbǎojīdīng 宫保鸡丁 or Gongbao Chicken. It is usually not that spicy and is one of Sichuan’s most famous dishes. If you love Chicken and Peanuts like me you will love this! 😉
The next thing you could try is mápódòufǔ 麻婆豆腐, which is tofu in a spicy and bean-based sauce and can be translated as the ‘Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu’. Despite the not so beautiful name, it is a very nice dish that goes well with rice.
And then comes the more challenging task: because being in Sichuan you don’t want to miss out on the Hot Pot. One of my first dinners in Chengdu was Hot Pot and I was lucky there was a small part with non-spicy soup, so I could still relax my mouth a little after trying the spicy one.
Basically there are three types of Hot Pot. The traditional huǒguō 火锅, which is served in a big bowl in the middle of the table. You then order the meat and vegetables and put them inside to share with everyone.
Then here in Chengdu they also have chuànchuàn huǒguō 串串火锅, which means that everything is on a skewer. You go collect what you want to eat on a plate or in a little basket and they will then bring you the things you have chosen in a bowl with the soup it was cooked in.
The third one is not exactly like Hot Pot, it is gānguō 干锅 Dry Pot. It is usually meat with a lot of hot peppers, some vegetables and usually potatoes cut in a shape like French fries. Some of the Dry Pots are less spicy than others and have other additional ingredients depending on the restaurant. You can try rabbit or frog meat to make it even more exciting.
What’s good to cool off the fire in your mouth and insides?
Watermelon is a salvation for your burning lips and mouth, because it’s sweet and cool and has a lot of water. This is perfect as a dessert after your spicy meal.
Usually you can always order yoghurt to drink, which will cool your mouth and help you digest the spicy and oily food, or dòunǎi 豆奶, soy bean milk, which is especially good when it’s warm.
And if you really cannot tolerate the spice, no need to worry, there are plenty of dishes that are not spicy. But if someone like me can tolerate a certain level of spice now, you probably could to. I now sometimes even think that some of the dishes are not spicy at all. It will definitely help you expand your palate. Also, I was told that if you haven’t had Yunnan food, you don’t really know what spicy is!
Do you feel like trying to immerse into the world of Sichuan cuisine? Apply now and come to Chengdu to have a hot and spicy meal with us!