Sichuan (Four Rivers), sometimes spelled Szechwan, is in southwestern China and probably second only to Cantonese as the most recognizable style of Chinese cooking in the West. From the US to Japan and India, it’s shorthand for “spicy”, and even the exceedingly localized pseudo-Chinese joint in my home suburb in Helsinki offered a vaguely ketchupy concoction called “Szechwan beef” on its menu, next to the rye bread, buttermilk and salad bar of chopped raw Chinese cabbage with canned mandarin slices.
Hardcore amounts of chilli peppers are indeed a definite characteristic of Sichuan cuisine, known in China as as River Cuisine (川菜 chuān cài) after the Four Rivers of Sichuan’s name, but in my opinion the true differentiator to the other merely spicy cuisines of the world is the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 huājiāo). When I was a kid, my mother had a rarely used little glass jar of shriveled up reddish-brown Sichuan pepper husks in her kitchen cupboard, tasting of nothing in particular, and it wasn’t until I chanced upon the fresh stuff in Singapore around 2005 that I realized why it’s so central to real Sichuanese food. The Chinese call the taste of Sichuan peppercorn (麻 má), usually unhelpfully translated as “numbing” because the same character is also used for anesthesia, but if you ask me they should pick “drugging” instead, because those two spiky bits under the roof (广) are actually hemp leaves! In a similar way that the capsaicin of chilli goes beyond the classic five tastes by hitting your pain receptors, trigging that sweet masochistic endorphin rush, the sanshool of fresh Sichuan pepper is a hallucinogen for the tastebuds, altering their reactions sideways in weird, wonderful and ideosyncratic ways. For me, after eating the pepper, even a glass of plain cold water suddenly tastes sour, salty and thick.
When you mix together chillies and Sichuan pepper, you get the killer spicy-numbing combo called málà (麻辣), which took Singapore by storm while I was away — as I write this even McDonalds is now hawking mala fries. However, I’ll leave exploring my pain tolerance for the Chongqing episode, since Sichuan’s largest city is administratively its own province and famed even in Sichuan itself for completely ridiculous levels of spice.
To kick things off, I strapped on my training wheels and invited the family and some friends to Shisen Hanten (四川飯店), the Singapore outpost of what just might be the world’s most famous Sichuanese restaurant. Founder Chen Kenmin (Jianmin) opened the original in Tokyo in 1958 and it’s often credited with introducing Japan to Chinese food, although this also meant that the spice levels were toned down considerably for the Japanese palate. My grandfather-in-law, OG hipster poet that he was, used to hold his tanka poetry clubs at the Osaka branch even before it became cool, because the restaurant really took off in the 1990s when the founder’s son Chen Ken’ichi became the original Iron Chef Chinese and a fixture on TV screens across the entire world.
Grandson Chen Kentaro’s name is plastered on the Singapore branch, which is high up on the 35rd floor of the new Hilton (former Mandarin Orchard), looking every inch like the hotel ballroom it is with the classic round tables with white tablecloths and lazy Susans in the middle. On this quiet Tuesday night the majority of clientele was Japanese, attesting partly to the restaurant’s fame in Japan, and partly to the fact that the restaurant has scored two Michelin stars every year since 2016 and is priced to match. How would the food hold up?
We kicked off with a selection of Sino-Japanese classics, starting with the famed Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁 gōngbǎo jīdīng). Order this in the West and you’ll get a mess of orange juice and corn starch, but Shisen’s rendition was dry, not too spicy, generously provisioned with cashews and had a few token Sichuan peppers thrown in. The kids loved the twice-cooked pork (回锅肉 huíguōròu), a simple dish of crispy pork, cabbage and mild Japanese piman peppers with just a hint of chilli. Stir-fried green beans (干煸四季豆 gānbiān sìjìdòu) are a Sichuanese favorite that’s really tasty when done right, but Shisen’s version was curiously denatured, with not much going on and the beans limp, not crisp. Shredded Wagyu Beef with Japanese Green Pepper (青椒牛肉丝) is apparently a Sichuanese dish as well, but I’ve never seen this outside Japan, and Shisen’s version tasted exactly like cheap Chinese food in Japan: gluggy and curiously tasteless.
The standout for me was, though, was Shisen’s second-most famous dish, their take on chilli shrimp (干烧明虾 gānshāo míngxiā). In Japan, ordering ebi-chiri (エビチリ) gets you a plate of gloopy, sickly sweet prawns, but here the complex, multilayered sauce was reminiscent of chilli crab gravy, yet somehow more fresh and zingy, and the prawns were huge and bursting with flavour. As a bonus, they came with a side of deep-fried mantou buns perfect for sopping up the gravy, and so good we had to order more. (Factoid: Iron Chef’s Chairman Kaga said that this was the best dish he ate in the entire series!)
Yet Shisen’s top dish is mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), “pockmarked grandma’s beancurd”, a seemingly simple dish of soft beancurd in a sauce of minced meat and plenty of mala chilli and Sichuan pepper. The version here pulls no punches: it was oily and both la (spicy) and ma (numbing), a little too much so for the kids, who are more used to the slightly-la, non-ma Japanese version.
Our final dish of the day was also perhaps the most authentic Sichuan dish of the day: “water-boiled” (水煮 shuǐzhǔ) marble goby, prepared by poaching the fish for 20-30 seconds and then finished off by pouring boiling oil on top. The English menu warns that this is “super-spicy”, and it was indeed the spiciest thing we ate today, but despite the intimidating pile of chilli on top and plenty of Sichuan peppercorns popping in my mouth, the sweetness of the very fresh fish still came through. Very nice!
For dessert, we had the Trio of Desserts: Sino-Japanese staple “almond” tofu (杏仁豆腐 xìngrén dòufu, or annin dōfu in Japan), which is actually made from ground apricot kernels and tastes a bit like almond liquor; mango pudding; and a little cube of doughy sponge cake cautiously flavored with dark sugar. The kids tried the aloe vera and lemongrass jelly, which had a touch of Chinese herbal flavor, with palate-cleansing yuzu sorbet. The final Japanese touch awaited in the toilets, where the seats are equipped with high-end Toto washlets that let you choose between Oscillating, Pulsating, or even both.
Speaking of butt-puckering things, it was time for the bill, which came to $479 for the eight of us — the priciest meal by a long way of the entire project, and that’s with zero alcohol and half the table being kids who subsisted primarily on fried rice. There are two ways to look at that figure: by Singapore Michelin star dining standards, where a meal for two at Odette goes well north of $1000, it’s actually a reasonably good deal; but by any other standard, it’s a ridiculous price to pay for food that would cost a quarter or less a few blocks away in Chinatown’s Little Sichuan. To be honest, the most disappointing thing was that Shisen can’t quite seem to make up its mind about whether it’s Sichuanese or Sino-Japanese, down to details like the background music alternating between Chinese traditional and twangy Japanese shamisen plucking, and this makes the menu a bit of a crapshoot as well.
And psst: if you’d like to check out that mapo doufu yourself without breaking the bank, they’ve now franchised out Chen’s Mapo Tofu to shopping malls islandwide, with a basic bowl starting from $12.80.
Next, I atoned for my culinary sins by eating perhaps the most iconic Sichuanese dish, hotpot (火锅 huǒguō), and what better place to eat it than China’s most famous hotpot chain, Haidilao (海底捞, “Deep Sea Dredging”). Founded in suburban Chengdu in 1994, the chain’s founder Zhang Yong is now the richest man in Singapore, with a net worth of some $15 billion. His recipe for success? Reasonable food, fairly high prices, and famously obsessive service: for example, ladies waiting in line may get treated to a free manicure.
There are a dozen Haidilaos in Singapore, but wait times are still often measured in hours, so we booked a table at their comparatively quiet Clarke Quay outlet. Order of the day was a double pot split between the Sichuan original, generously mala-flavored of course, and Bai Yu (白玉, “white jade”), a complex but non-spicy fish-chicken-pork broth in the same family as Japanese tonkotsu of ramen fame. Into the pot went sliced lamb shoulder, “hairy belly” beef tripe (毛肚 máodù), pork kidney, black pork slices, pork balls, tofu skin, black fungus, winter melon, lotus root, crown daisy (茼蒿 tónghāo, or shungiku in Japanese), lettuce leaf and instant noodles. Whew! We also ordered the famous homemade “kung fu noodles”, usually prepared at your table, but in these COVID times brought on a plate.
In Japanese hotpots, it’s all about the ingredients, the broths are simple and any condiments are strictly optional. In Sichuan hotpot, though, most items are cooked for mere seconds, so the broth has to be overloaded with ingredients so the flavor can infuse quickly. What’s more, there’s a near-absurd array of condiments to mix and match, with their signature “Haidilao sauce” (middle pic) stretching the definition of “sauce”: not only is it quite dry, but it contains things like roasted soy beans, minced beef, coriander and a ton of raw garlic. The condiment bar also serves up unlimited snacks, fruits and ice cream.
So how was it? Not quite as spicy as I expected: the chilli oil was largely concentrated on the top of the pot, and the dipping sauces helped numb the pain. My favorites were the kidney, sliced thin and cooked in seconds; the tofu skin, silky smooth yet absorbent; and the lamb. The house sesame sauce was also quite tasty and, being liquid, much more effective at cooling. Total damage for 4 came to $147 without drinks, which is definitely on the pricy side for hotpot, but it was tasty and fun, so odds are we’ll be back.
The final dish of this little tour was hot and sour noodles (酸辣粉 suānlàfěn). My new favorite vloggers 聪生家SG Chengdu Family did a great “PK” episode (literally Player Killer, but meaning any kind of winner-takes-all competition) sampling 5 bowls across Singapore, so when I found myself in Jurong on a Sunday, I made a beeline for their top pick, Divine Chicken Pot (好滋味鸡公煲) tucked away in the Food Republic food court in the basement of the Westgate shopping mall. They really don’t make it easy for you to order it though: not only does the English menu dub it the thoroughly misleading “Sausage Rice Noodle” (!?), but even the Chinese name is “Fat Intestine Noodles” (肥肠粉 féichángfěn) instead. All was forgiven once I tasted it though, as despite the intimidating appearance, it was only mildly spicy (微辣 wēilà) as promised and the mala, the vinegar and the earthy funk of intestines sang in harmony. I’m generally not a huge fan of intestines, but these were really well done, soft and only slightly chewy with a moreish meaty taste. The glass noodles were thick, chewy and the peanuts on top added a nice bit of crunch. I’m getting hungry again just typing this. Two thumbs up, and only $7 too!
In addition to food, Sichuan is also famed as the home of one of the four signature styles of baijiu white liquor, namely “strong aroma” (浓香 nóngxiāng). If you’ve ever recoiled in horror after being punched in the nostrils by a “clear aroma” baijiu like Beijing’s Red Star, you may find the concept of something even stronger to be rather intimidating, but for the betterment of mankind I invested the princely sum of $9.50 in a 125 mL bottle of Luzhou Laojiao Er Qu (泸州老窖二曲). Distilled since 1573 by China’s oldest baijiu makers Luzhou Laojiao, the “Second Song” is the third and cheapest grade they have, and consequently has the sobriquet “the People’s Baijiu”.
So how was it? It’s strong alright (45°) and clear like vodka, but surprisingly drinkable, like an amped-up version of Hubei’s Maopu with a similar layered, complex taste that’s incongruously fruity and floral at times. And on that incongruously fruity note, we’ve sung our song to Sichuan.