If you’re living in the 21st century, there’s a very good chance that the word “Szechuan” evokes a specific flavor. And while that memory may vary for everyone, it always has few things in common: heat accompanied by a unique numbing sensation, a variety of earthy tastes like ginger and dried mushrooms, and bean paste curd. But within that larger template, there are a countless number of variations. “Szechuan” can mean a lot of things, but it’s the kind of thing you know when you taste it.
Fortunately for you, there are a lot of sauces on the market that evoke that unique but knowable thing that is “Szechuan”. While they may not always cling to the sensibilities of what some people say Szechuan food should be, that’s true of Szechuan food itself. It’s a mutating, intergenerational thing that’s borne from giant family meals and the creative meals of street vendors. Our favorite sauces blend together with those important sensibilities seamlessly while also bringing something new to the table with each formula.
Zhong dumplings are one of the most popular street foods in the Szechuan region, and you owe it to yourself to try them if you can. Sweet, spicy, and numbing all at once, they’re a one-of-a-kind flavor that typifies the complexity of Szechuan food. In their conventional form, these dumplings are stuffed with a mix of pork, peppercorn, ginger, scallion, and a variety of other spices. They’re then typically slathered in a garlic chili sauce. The complexity of ingredients creates a more delicate balance than you might imagine.
Naturally, that makes Zhong sauce a good match for protein. Zhong sauce pairs very well with meat, poultry, seafood, and tofu. The savory flavors at work here pair really well with eggs as well and can be a great way to tie together a big, fluffy omelet.
If you haven’t tried chili crisp, you probably haven’t tried Szechuan food. Fortunately, you can find it at practically any Chinese restaurant around. Dried chili flakes speckle a thick oil that’s imbued with garlic. The spicy and earthy results are heavenly and can be used as a condiment, a sauce, or even a marinade. Chili crisp is a very strong flavor, but it’s also one that works well with others.
That versatility is the real strength of chili crisp. As long as you’re willing to accept a little spice, it can add some kick to practically anything. Put it on meat or veggies, or mix it in with cold or hot noodles. Some people even like mixing chili crisp with vanilla ice cream for the stark contrast between sweet and spicy that it offers.
Szechuan flavor can sometimes be mistaken for being one-note. Mala sauce is proof that that’s not the case. While it includes many of the same ingredients and has many similar tastes to chili crisp and Zhong sauce, it’s got plenty of qualities uniquely its own as well. Heat and numbing qualities are provided by chilis and Sichuan peppercorn, which are somewhat offset by the inclusion of cinnamon. Add in ginger, garlic, clove, and star anise and you have one of the most texturally sophisticated flavors in the world.
But if you really want to get clever with it, go for a mala powder. The savory flavoring can be transformed into a dip or sauce, but it can also be used in a number of other different ways. Sprinkle it on your meat as a seasoning, rim your bloody mary with it, or toss it with your freshly popped popcorn.