China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

On Regional Food Differences and Sichuan Peppercorn Oil

April 20th, 2012

A rose is a rose is a rose. Or, as you might say in China, stir-fried egg with tomato is stir-fried egg with tomato is stir-fried egg with tomato. Because the truth is, despite all the interesting and wonderfully unique dishes that Yunnan has to offer, a lot of the dishes that home cooks make here look remarkably like what home cooks in any part of China would make on any given night of the week. A typical dinner in most homes (or home-like guesthouses, like the Old Theater Inn in Shaxi) will include a stir-fried dish of meat with vegetables, another stir-fry of just vegetables, a large bowl of rice, and a “soup,” of simply boiled vegetables flavored with a bit of salt.

Some of these dishes, like the stir-fried egg with tomato, appear all over the country in more or less the exact same form with the exact same flavor profile. As many times as I’ve been served this homey dish, I’ve never once been surprised by its flavors. But other dishes are deceiving. What might look like a dish that could have been made anywhere from Beijing to Guangzhou can actually be a wonderful representation of a region’s unique flavor profile. A pinch of black cardamom or the addition of a searingly hot pepper in place of milder, similar looking variety give the same dish wildly different flavors and identify them as specific variations from the cities of Dali or Kunming.

Sichuan peppercorn tree up the street from the Old Theater Inn in Shaxi

In Shaxi, the flavoring of choice is the Sichuan peppercorn. It’s used subtly so that its flavor blends with the others in the dish, but after a couple bites of many of the local dishes, you find that your mouth is pleasantly tingly. To achieve this flavor, cooks use a pinch of crushed peppercorn or a small spoonful of peppercorn-flavored oil, or a combination of the two. They add it just at the end of cooking, when the stir-fried greens or pork with peppers is nearly ready, and that tiny little bit of spice makes all the difference.


Recipe: Sichuan Peppercorn Powder

Recipe: Sichuan Peppercorn Oil

Recipe: Stir-Fried Pork with Peppers, Garlic Scapes, and Sichuan Peppercorn Oil

Photos: Georgia Freedman (2)