Nothing cuts through the autumn chill or breaks up summer dampness like a punch in the face from some fiery Chinese cuisine. Basted in chilli oil, mounded with freshly sliced chillies, coated in pickled chillies, or almost completely hidden by cracked dried chillies - we'll eat just about anything imbued with enough heat. Yet when it comes to the spicier things, these dishes have got to have a balance of flavour, texture and face-melting down heat.
Spicy-numbing lotus root
(Mala oupian, 麻辣藕片)
A surprisingly light entry from the seat of heat, Sichuan province. Thin slices of steamed lotus root are layered ever so daintily on a bed of chilli paste and minced peanuts. The crunch of the aquatic veggie never disappoints and the naturally porous flesh soaks up a good licking of hot oil and numbing huajiao, Sichuan peppercorns.
at most Sichuan chains and back alley spots, but our favourite (and of indeed many on this list) can be found at favourite Zhang Mama
(Koushui ji, 口水鸡)
Koushuiji, of the mala or the non-mala variety, is like the pizza of the Sichuanese canon: almost universally loved, featured in restaurants that have no business attempting it and easily one of the most accessible dish for first timers out there. A cold dish often served as a starter, poached chicken is sliced or chopped (on the bone so watch them chompers) and a mixture of chilli oil, sesame oil, fermented chilli paste, scallions and, depending on the heat level and inclination of the chef, a hearty dose of Sichuan peppercorn oil and some fresh chillies. The cool succulent chicken contrasts the fiery colour and flavour of the sauce producing a dissonance that does nothing if not pique the appetite for more spicy fare.
street-side versions of this humble classic are a must but our favourite is the more elevated and dignified version found found at Jing Yaa Tang
(Regan mian, 热干面)
Hailing from Hubei’s capital Wuhan, hot-dry noodles have long been a breakfast staple for the people of Hubei and is now found on street corners around China, including our fair city. Freshly cooked wheaten noodles, pickled carrot and, occasionally, minced pork, and a thick sesame paste-based sauce. A splash of chilli oil livens up what is already a supremely flavourful and rich noodle, but make sure to ask for extra spicy to really get your engine (not to mention bowels, we did say it's a breakfast dishes) going.
Although we love just about anything short of the instant version (commonly reserved for train station waiting rooms and silent tears), our new favourite spot for an elevated take on regan mian
is Chunxiu Lu’s Morning
, be brave and ask for zhong la
(重辣), mega spicy.
Wok fried pork with chillies
(Xiao chao rou, 小炒肉)
A dish hailing again from Hunan and opting for heat in the form of green chillies this classic home-style dish combines the rich, savoury goodness of fatty pork belly with the fresh heat of lightly fried green chillies. Simple, to the point and full-on fiery. The mouth-coating richness of the slightly caramelised fat mingles well with the heat of the chillies to make for one satisfying spice-fest.
again this is popular home-style dish that feature prominently on many menus around Beijing, but our top pick is almost always the Dongsi area Hunanese joint Nice Rice
(Chongqing xiao mian, 重庆小面)
If Sichuan Province is the seat of heat, Chongqing is the extremist faction that broke away from the main body of work to explore new heights of fever inducing spice. The city-province has developed a reputation for cuisine even more brutally indifferent to taste buds and toilet time than its mother land but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying its greatest gift to the noodle eating world – Chongqing xiao mian. Thin wheaten noodles are doused with a chilli oil-based broth garnished with sliced scallion and crunchy lettuce, what may look like a welcoming friend actually harbours an extra coating of floating oil, vegetables should never be trusted when it comes to crimson dishes.
Chongqing xiao mian
is as popular and nearly as cheap as its mutton-based Muslim rival, Lanzhou lamian
, but our top pick can be none other than Pangmei Mianzhuang
, although the restaurant is currently closed for refurb until after the Spring Festival.
Smashed chilli with preserved egg
(Lei la jiao pi dan, 擂辣椒皮蛋)
A lesser know entry from Hunan province, a place famous for its use of pickled chillies and strong fermented sauces as well as fresh and dried chillies, this dish is a literal mash-up of both. Whole green chillies, don't for even a moment think that green means you're safe – these mothers pack a serious wallop, are pan-fried or roasted and then mashed in a mortar with slices of preserved egg (aka century egg, no it's not 100 years old and yes it's delicious and tastes like the strangest creamy strong cheese you've ever tried) and fresh coriander leaves. The spread-like dish, best enjoyed over rice or as a side dish, coats the mouth with a fresh sharp heat that will lay you flat on your back (preferably with a constant stream of, alternatively, beer and milk being administered by a kind stranger).
for really potent chilli and preserved egg it has to be The Southern Fish
, a tiny, stylish spot in Xicheng, just don't be late as the kitchen closes 20-30 minutes before closing and you better believe they couldn't care less that you ventured all the way west just for them.
(Mapo doufu, 麻坡豆腐)
Finally we have a moment to spare for the erstwhile tofu classic, the training wheels with which authentic Sichuan cuisine has careened into the West, mapo doufu. Famous the world over because its freaking delicious. Sweet, spicy, numbing, fragrant, delectable to look at and mercifully easy to make, it's not so much a full-on assault of spice as it is a gentle reminder of the simple joy of being alive, well and eating. Cubes of silken tofu are simmered in a thick sauce of soy paste, Sichuan pepper oil, sugar and chilli paste until the flavour sings from ever corner of the bean curd, served over rice it's the working man's delight as much as it's a refined demonstration of restraint.
Find it basically everywhere, Sichuanese or not, this dish is about as ubiquitous as it gets for home-style dishes.
By Nick Gollner