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Szechuan style cuisine

Surrounded by mountains, including the famed Himalayas to the north, Szechuan province has given the world a unique cuisine.

In English, the province is also often spelled Sichuan. The more common spelling is influenced by the Cantonese dialect. Whether it's kung pao chicken, ma po tofu or bang bang chicken, Szechuan cooking is renowned for being hot and spicy.

That reputation is well deserved. The hot, humid climate accelerates food spoilage. Spices help preserve food as well as opening the pores to cool the body. But far from chiefly practical concerns, the spicy food native to this region of China simply tastes delicious.

Szechuan chefs delight in using dried peppers of different varieties. They create a taste sensation that not only wakes up the palate but satisfies the soul. Made from a reddish-brown fruit, the berries from the ash tree are dried and ground. The result is sprinkled liberally on dishes to make a meal only the natives could have invented.

But there's much more to Szechuan cuisine than merely stimulating the tongue with chemical heat. In the realm of spices alone the food is rich in garlic hints and full of the flavorful salts popular in the region.

Beef, lamb and pork are popular meats and they're prepared in equally varied ways. Twice cooked pork, a dish in which the meat is boiled then stir-fried in a wok, is associated with this section of China. Peppercorns sprinkled over beef is a common combination that has become a classic in Szechuan cuisine.

But sweet flavorings are equally easy to find in the region. Beet root and cane sugar often provide a sugary taste to a dish here. They're then combined with everything from orange peel to ginger from pickled vegetables to bean paste and from vinegar to sesame oil. That gives food in the province a combination of delightful flavors. For, Szechuan cuisine is nothing if not varied. While it may be more famous for spicy dishes, there is a range of tastes that make up native recipes.

Even the noodles in this once-forgotten area of the country are distinctive. Though made from wheat just as are ordinary noodles, the result is anything but mundane. Flavored with fagara or pepper flower, they are a delightful taste sensation.

But if your palate is a little sensitive, not to worry. The hot oils that secure Szechuan spices to the noodles, beef and other solid food are easy to deal with. Drinking water is of limited help, since oil repels it. Water won't wash the hot spice away. A bite of rice, a drink of beer or a bit of plain bean paste can help ease the situation.

Explore more about Chinese cuisine but enjoy some Szechuan dishes today and find out what all the hot talk is about.