Fiery Flavors: Hunan vs Szechuan
Chinese cuisine is often broken down into eight distinct schools based on region: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan, and Zhejiang. Two of these regions that have gained the most recognition both in China and worldwide are the Hunan and Szechuan culinary schools. Although both schools utilize hot peppers, setting their dishes apart as distinctly spicy, the flavors are unique from one another due to their varying ingredients.
In this article, we will explore the origins of these schools as well as the similarities and differences between their flavor profiles. At the end, you can decide for yourself who comes out on top in the great battle of fiery flavors: Hunan vs Szechuan.
The Story of Szechuan
One of the most popular among the eight major schools of Chinese culinary arts is Szechuan cuisine. Szechuan cuisine (also known as Sichuan or Chuan Cai) comes from the Sichuan province located in southwestern China. Today, many people recognize Szechuan dishes as notably spicy, often utilizing hot peppers among the main ingredients. However, this heat was not always present in Szechuan cooking, instead evolving over time as the Sichuan region began experimenting with resources from other parts of the world.
Szechuan cuisine has been famous for more than 800 years, with restaurants dedicated to the unique style of cooking opening up in the capital during the Southern Song Dynasty. Originally, these dishes relied on animals that were plentiful in the region, including oxen, poultry, and freshwater fish. By the end of the 17th century, the hot pepper (eventually known as Sichuan peppercorns) had made its way over to the region from South America. To counteract the humidity in Sichuan province, locals began adding hot peppers to most dishes, eventually developing the unique flavor we know and love.
What Do Szechuan Dishes Taste Like?
If you’ve had Szechuan cuisine before, then you’re no doubt aware of its characteristically spicy flavor. But where does that flavor come from? What types of spices and ingredients are commonly found in these dishes that make them so unique?
Though the main flavor profile of Szechuan dishes involves heat and spice, other flavors like sweet and sour may also come through. The distinguishing ingredient of this Szechuan school, however, is the Sichuan peppercorn. But the Sichuan pepper isn’t just spicy. It also creates a distinct tingling or numbing sensation in the mouth. Alongside this unique pepper, you will often find chili, ginger, garlic, black pepper, and shallots.
The History of Hunan
Hunan cuisine also ranks among the eight major schools of Chinese culinary arts. This style of cooking, also referred to as Xiang cuisine, comes from the Hunan region located in southeastern China. Hunan cuisine also includes 3 distinct internal styles that correspond to regions within the area: Xiang River style, Dongting Lake style and western Hunan style.
Hunan cooking has been developing in China for more than 2,100 years, growing and changing as new ingredients were slowly introduced via trade. From the start, these dishes featured a wide variety of resources from the abundantly flourishing region, such as fish, crab, and even turtle as well as other types of game. Over time, it has expanded into over 4,000 unique dishes, many of which remain popular today.
What Do Hunan Dishes Taste Like?
Like Szechuan cuisine, Hunan dishes are well known for their spice. However, food from this region also features a distinct sourness and saltiness in its flavor profile. So where does this unique combination of flavors come from?
Many Hunan dishes include a chili sauce that uses vinegar alongside the chopped peppers. Not only does the vinegar bring a notable sour flavor to the dish, but it also is believed to provide cooling sensations for the body, creating a pleasant complexity of both flavors and sensations. Some Hunan cuisine also makes use of fermented chilis to bring about more sour and spicy flavors as well as fermented soybeans for a little bit of bitterness.
Distinguishing the Unique Szechuan and Hunan Flavors
Due to the humidity in both the Sichuan and Hunan regions, the cuisines hailing from these places heavily feature hot peppers as a way to help the local people eliminate dampness. However, the types of heat in these two schools of culinary art are very different. Szechuan cuisine utilizes the Sichuan peppercorn, which creates a numbing sensation in the mouth and requires the use of heavy amounts of oil. Hunan dishes, on the other hand, feature a dry spice that comes from various types of chili peppers. Due to this difference in spice, dishes from both regions have the potential to “out-spice” one another.
So spice alone isn’t enough to decide a winner between these culinary arts? Luckily, each cuisine also features an array of subtle flavors to accompany the characteristic heat. As we mentioned, Hunan dishes are often sour thanks to the use of vinegar and fermented ingredients in preparation. Szechuan cuisine, on the other hand, may be sour at times, but can also have a degree of sweetness or smokiness.
Hunan vs Szechuan: Who Wins?
So in this battle of flavors (Hunan vs Szechuan), which culinary school comes out on top? Is it the dry but subtly sour spice of the Hunan region or the numbing heat of the Sichuan region? The answer comes down to unique preferences. Those who prefer a more intense heat may enjoy Hunan dishes more while those who look for a unique type of spice may look to Szechuan dishes instead. We invite you to try both flavors and form your own ideas about which one reigns supreme.
If you’re a fan of these flavors, you may also want to try them in snack form! Jackson’s Sweet Potato Chips has recently it's developing a Szechuan flavored chip of our own that aims to capture the authentic taste of Szechuan cuisine using premium oils and high quality ingredients. To get your hands on a bag, you can visit our online store or your local grocery store.