Some of the most popular American Chinese dishes, like Szechuan chicken, come from Sichuan, China, a province famous for its hot and spicy dishes. The focus on heat and spice, particularly from the peppers, is one of the most distinct elements of cooking Szechuan dishes and helps to set this type of cuisine apart from other regional dishes. Sichuan cuisine is considered one of the Eight Great Traditions in Chinese cuisine, each of which are considered to be the most praised regional cuisines in China.
Located in Southwest, China, Sichuan is famous for its bold, fiery dishes filled with Sichuan peppercorn (花椒, huājiāo), chili peppers, and facing heaven peppers (朝天椒, cháotiān jiāo). What makes Sichuan cuisine unique is the liberal use of peppers and the addition of fragrant Sichuan peppers, which, when eaten, create a numbing sensation thanks to hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, a molecule found in some plants.
Szechuan peppers were actually banned in the United States from 1968 up until 2005 for fear of spreading a citrus-affecting bacterium known as citrus canker. The ban was lifted so long as the pepper was cooked for a certain amount of time at a certain heat, effectively removing the flavor the pepper is so known for.
Popular American Chinese dishes like Szechuan chicken (四川鸡, Sìchuān jī) are milder but equally aromatic and flavorful. Plus, Szechuan chicken is quick and easy to make. You don’t need to go any further than your kitchen to bring this great dish to life.
What Is Szechuan chicken?
As its name suggests, Szechuan chicken is a popular dish from Sichuan, China. Sichuan's most iconic dish is distinguished by its liberal use of peppers. Often, there are more peppers in the dish than pieces of chicken! Seasonings like garlic, ginger, star anise, and sesame paste round the dish out for a fiery party in your mouth. You can also throw in peanuts or sesame seeds for added texture.
While exact Szechuan chicken recipes may vary depending on where it is served, Szechuan chicken at its core is a simple stir fry dish of chicken (traditionally chicken thigh), dried red chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili bean paste.
This Chinese dish is spelled several ways; you may have seen it on a menu as Sichuan chicken or Szechwan chicken, and it can also be known as Mala chicken (麻辣鸡, málà jī) and Lazi chicken (辣子鸡, Làzǐ jī), but all variations have the same thing in common: they're full of tingly heat. The Sichuan peppercorns are what give Szechuan chicken a unique flavor. When eaten, the Sichuan peppercorns create a numbing effect that enhances the dish's flavor.
What Does Szechuan Chicken Taste Like?
Szechuan chicken has a unique spicy-savory-sweet flavor that distinguishes it from other types of spicy dishes, such as Hunan chicken or kung pao chicken. One of the best things about this dish is how much you can customize it to fit your tastes: make it super spicy, or tone down the spice and up the sweetness. Serve it with vegetables, or without. It’s traditionally served over white rice, but use brown rice if you’re feeling healthy.
Hunan Chicken vs Szechuan chicken
There are several differences between Hunan chicken and Szechuan chicken. First, and most obvious, is that they come from different parts of China. Hunan is in southern China and Sichuan is in southwest China. Both provinces are known for their spicy and hot dishes.
Hunan chicken (湖南鸡, Húnán jī) is a dry seasoned, spicy chicken dish. The chicken is marinated in soy sauce, shredded ginger, and sherry. Then, the chicken breast is stir fried in chili peppers, scallions, chicken broth, cornstarch, wine vinegar, sugar, salt, anise pepper, and doubanjiang (豆瓣醬, dòubànjiàng), a paste of chili peppers, fermented broad beans, and soybeans, rendering a mala (麻辣, málà), or numbing and piquant sensation..
Szechuan chicken is a bold, sweet, and spicy chicken dish with a citrus fragrance made from similar ingredients, minus the chili paste, but it still has the mala spice element. The chicken is battered and fried and then stir fried with Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, minced garlic, carrot strips, egg, cornstarch, dry sherry, chopped green onions, vegetable oil, cayenne pepper, crushed red chilies, and soy sauce. The dish typically has a thicker sauce than Hunan chicken.
Both dishes are served with steamed white rice, but Hunan chicken is often spicier and served with vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms. It's lower in calories than Szechuan chicken and healthier thanks to its stir fry preparation.
Szechuan chicken, on the other hand, is served with a sauce that is spicy, savory, and sweet. Traditionally, no additional vegetables are added to Szechuan chicken; however, you can feel free to add veggies for a quick and easy all-in-one dish.
How to Make Szechuan chicken
There are several ways to make Szechuan chicken, but a basic Szechuan chicken recipe typically includes the following ingredients:
Chicken coated in cornstarch and seasonings
“Facing heaven” peppers
Sichuan peppercorns - the most important!
Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, or red peppers
Sauce made with soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, and chicken broth
First, the chicken breasts are battered and fried. Then, they are stir fried with red chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and vegetables. The sauce is whisked together, poured on the chicken and vegetables, and then simmered. Szechuan chicken is often served with steamed white rice.
You can adjust the heat level to fit your palate and experiment with vegetable offerings.
Recipe: Szechuan Chicken Wings
If you like the strong flavors of chili spices and oils, this is an excellent option for your dinner table. Our version is super quick, especially if you prep the wings beforehand. We recommend deep frying the wings the day before, then leaving them to refrigerate overnight. This not only cuts down on prep time, but ensures your wings will stay crispy.
2 pounds of chicken wings
Oil—enough to deep fry
50g of dried chili pepper cut into 1-inch segments
1 tablespoon tribute pepper
Step One: Salt the wings well.
Step Two: In a large pot or wok, deep fry the wings at 270 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes, or until the wings are cooked through. You want them to turn a golden color, not brown.
Step Three: Refrigerate the wings overnight. This will ensure that they are crispy.
Step Four: When it is time to serve, heat your oil in the wok or pan to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and fry for 5-10 minutes, watching carefully. When they are a golden-brown color, take them out.
Step Five: Use your Fly By Jing Mala Spice Mix to liberally sprinkle the hot wings.
Step Six: In another wok, heat some oil and begin frying the tribute pepper and the chili pepper together until fragrant.
Step Seven: Toss the wings into the pepper oil mixture and make sure they are evenly coated.
Step Eight: Top with cilantro and serve immediately.