Revered for its bold flavors, mouthwatering heat and unique numbing sensation, Szechuan cuisine hits a lot of notes with today’s adventurous diners, says Mark Kim, executive chef at UCLA’s Feast at Rieber Dining Hall.
“Chinese cuisine was highly requested from students, and Szechuan is [particularly] enjoyed by many diners due to the liberal use of garlic, chili peppers and fragrant peppercorns, yielding slightly sour and bitter tastes,” says Kim, who uses mostly stir-frying, steaming and braising techniques.
UCLA isn’t alone. Because of the large population of international students, particularly of Asian origin, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides a wide variety of Asian foods, including Szechuan Bang Bang in three variations: beef, chicken and vegan protein.
“The flavor profile of Bang Bang, also known as Bon Bon, is best described as fireworks in your mouth—it’s bold with a balanced sweet heat,” explains Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for dining, adding that most students prefer the bold profile when served alongside mild flavors, like noodles.
Similarly, in the corporate world, more customers were requesting Asian cuisine, says Kris Valencia, regional culinary director for Compass Group supporting Microsoft Real Estate & Facilities, in Redmond, Wash.
So dining services recently launched a new Asian concept called Pacific Rim Kitchen, where noodle dishes are served alongside traditional dim sum and small plates, like Szechuan chicken wings. The wings are marinated in a sauce of sesame oil and seeds, ginger, garlic, chilies, Chinese five-spice and freshly ground Szechuan peppercorns. “Toast the spice powder and peppercorns together first to bring out the oils and fragrances,” suggests Valencia, noting the secret to the wing’s popularity is in the sourcing.
Though a lot of the items used in Szechuan dishes can be found at any grocery store, the peppercorns and really good five-spice powder have to be ordered from a specialty vendor, says Valencia, who sources from UNFI.
Kim agrees: “In order to give any cuisine flavors that are closest to authentic, using ingredients from that cuisine is integral.” As such, Kim orders a Chinese brand pure sesame oil, hot broad bean paste (doubangjiang) and chinkiang vinegar from a specialty vendor. Kim cautions against substituting sherry wine for traditional Shaoxing wine. “It doesn’t exactly yield the authentic result.”
The same goes for substituting standard hot sauce for the peppercorns. “In order to yield that tingling, often numbing sensation, the signature of Szechuan cuisine, you must use true Szechuan peppercorns—it’s what makes the cuisine so mesmerizing, if not addictive.”
Aubrey also sources specialty ingredients, like dried red peppers, fish sauce, palm sugar and hoisin, from an Asian purveyor in Chicago. “Asian purveyors require orders to be made via phone or fax, so we have our Korean-American chef place the orders because he speaks Korean and Cantonese,” Aubrey says, adding that the cost for authentic products can often be higher due to freight charges on imports.
Having native Chinese staff members is also helpful for more than just placing orders. “Diversity of our team lends to authenticity of our food,” Valencia says. “We really take advantage of the people from that region to bring that validity to the plate.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to hire new employees. Valencia recommends looking at your existing staff—when he did, he found two Chinese chefs in the dishwashing department. “They had the cooking skills and experience from generations of cooking at home in China and now they look at a recipe for a week and after that it’s consistent every time.”
Another method for incorporating authenticity is research. Valencia explored restaurants in Seattle’s Chinatown to truly understand Szechuan cuisine. “Szechuan doesn’t just mean spicy—Chinese cuisine is about balance and depth of flavors,” he explains.