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.
Birds of a Feather is a modern Sichuan eatery run by former managers of a prominent café conglomerate in Chengdu. The food is a crossbreed between East and West, so anticipate familiar continental café fare remixed from a Sichuan angle.
Here, panini gets stuffed with crackling Sichuan-spiced pork belly, angel hair pasta gets dressed up with mala sauce in a dish dubbed “Oriental Bolognaise” and Japanese sweet potatoes replace French fries come tossed in smoked chilli salt — you get the drift.
Birds of a Feather, 115 Amoy Street #01-01, Singapore 069935, +65 6221 7449
Shisen Hanten at Mandarin Orchard is the Singaporean arm of the Japanese restaurant empire that bears the same name and is the only one with a Michelin accolade — two stars at the time of writing.
Run by Chef Chen Kentaro, a third-generation member of the empire’s founding family, Singapore’s Shisen Hanten has a menu full of Cantonese staples with a Sichuan influence, alongside classics like mapo tofu and spicy la mian.
Shisen Hanten, Level 35, Orchard Wing, Mandarin Orchard, 333 Orchard Road, Singapore 238867, +65 6831 6266
A meal at Szechuan Court is a tour through the eight different indigenous culinary styles of China. Head chef Mok Wan Lok is partial to Cantonese dishes and Sichuan flavours, and he blends signatures from both provinces to create his interpretations of Chinese cuisine.
Braised deer tendons, wok-fried cod fillet and the like all compete for your attention on the menu, and each come peppered with a fair amount of Sichuan spice. Even though the plates are refined, everything that comes out of Szechuan Court’s kitchen is comforting to eat — the very best marker of quality for a Chinese restaurant.
Szechuan Court, Swissôtel The Stamford, 80 Bras Basah Rd, Singapore 189560, +65 6431 6156
Newly-opened Chengdu is one of the most traditional Sichuan restaurants in Singapore. Helmed by two native Chinese chefs with decades of training in Sichuan food, the restaurant sticks to the classics and delivers them impeccably.
We know red-hot chillis may be alluring, and a fair amount of dishes feature them but give the fish with green pepper soup a try. Presented in a bronze hotplate, the slow-cooked broth is tangy with garlic and pickled chilli.
Chengdu, 74 Amoy Street, Singapore 069893, +65 6221 9928
Sichuan Douhua was here before the provincial cuisine became a craze, and we expect this authentic abode to be here long after. Orthodox Sichuan dishes can be found here, even chilled variants customary in China but not so much in Singapore.
Get adventurous and order the cold chicken with a gelatinous spicy bean paste or icy hand-pulled la mian with onion oil and enjoy the curious juxtaposition of heat and cold. Sichuan Douhua is also known for its showmanship, where highly skilled tea masters perform martial arts and dance as they prepare your pot.
Sichuan Douhua, #60-01, UOB Plaza 1, 80 Raffles Place 1, Singapore 048624, +65 6535 6006
Another new kid on the block is Qi — House of Sichuan, a name familiar to those who frequent the original one Michelin-starred establishment in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai area. Cantonese dim sum staples get made over with spices imported directly from the mainland Chinese province.
A popular pick on the menu is the chilli oil wantons, with paper-thin skin stretched over a ball of minced chicken fragranced with scallions. The chef here is liberal with the spice, but merciful enough so you won’t leave with a heartburn after knocking back the whole bowl.
Qi – House of Sichuan, 8A Marina Boulevard, #02-01, Marina Bay Link Mall, Straits View, Singapore 018984, +65 6634 8277