Sometime last year, a sphere full of Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chillis was catapulted into the local dining industry and each one of these spice pieces mushroomed into a restaurant that hawked Sichuan food. Sure, we’re diving into hyperbole, but the reality is not too far off. Brought here by the rising number of mainland Chinese immigrants, Sichuan influences spread across Singapore’s restaurants and food centres of all tiers, and have since become a popular dining option for spice fiends.
The rise of Sichuan cuisine in Singapore is not unfounded when you think about our local love for fiery flavours, nor was it ever an unfamiliar category given how mala broth was a steamboat restaurant staple. What’s curious is how, even in spite of its boom, Sichuan food has never managed to acquire an identity beyond being a fuel for gastronomic masochism.
That’s not to discount how mala wei, or the tongue-numbing spiciness one gets from the conventional mixture of dried chillis and Sichuan peppercorns, is not essential. Heat is a definitive characteristic of Sichuan food, but not the only one.
Like its regional Chinese counterparts, Sichuan cuisine is built upon a complex exercise of layering bold flavours to create harmony — not a simple feat when you consider the potent aromatics used across most of such dishes. There are six fundamental pillars that native chefs work with to create Sichuan food: sour, hot, sweet, floral, bitter and salt. Balance is achieved by tempering the piquant mala with other Sichuan ingredients such as pickled vegetables and fermented bean paste for saltiness; scallions, ginger and other aromatic roots for freshness; cinnamon and cassia root for bitterness and spice.
Good Sichuan food, traditional or modern, should be a skilful composition, with nuances that play on your palate, not an occasion to sear your mouth silly with hellfire-coloured soup and leave your stomach regretting it for days after.
We’ve sifted out some of Singapore’s best Sichuan restaurants to get you on the right track.