Is Sichuan Food Becoming a Victim of Its Own Success?

Sang Yoon's Sichuan racks of lamb.
By Gillie Houston Posted June 21, 2016

According to The New York Times, local chefs and residents say that worldwide popularity is taking a major toll on the region's cooking.

In the Sichuan Province of China, the culinary scene has reached a boiling point—and not just within its signature hot pots. The southwestern region is home to the wildly spicy and fragrant dishes that have built a rabid following worldwide, and eaters from around the globe have begun flocking to cities like Chengdu to get an authentic fix. And while this means more tourist dollars going into the Chinese economy, many local chefs and residents say the cuisine's popularity has taken a major toll on the region's cooking.

"Sichuanese cuisine really faces a crisis," says local chef Wang Kaifa, who at 71 is leading a campaign against the "debasement" of the area's food. In an interview with The New York Times, Kaifa says that while the Sichuan scene is booming, it's "a chaotic boom that has had a lot of negatives."

The Times piece makes clear that Kaifa is not alone in his skepticism. In the town of Chengdu, which alone is home to thousands of restaurants and eateries, those who have been raised on the Sichuanese style of cooking feel that the subtler flavors of the cuisine are being drowned out by relentless heat. Excessive amounts of chile and oil have reduced menus to a frenzy of overwhelming heat, eliminating any nuanced dishes that once balanced out the area's offerings.

Shi Guanghua, a food writer and former Chengdu restaurateur says that the cuisine of his home "has become shallow and flattened" by the expectations of the hoards of culinary tourists. "Our taste buds have been battered into decline so that we demand it to be spicier and spicier," Guanghua says.

This issue has created quite the divide between business owners and restaurateurs, as many are grateful for the attention—and money—their native food has brought to the region. Food has become so pivotal to the local economy that the province's government released upgraded guidelines for standardized Sichuanese dishes last year, and will soon begin dishing out their own form of Michelin stars in the form of gold, silver, and bronze pandas.

Moving forward, the looming question becomes that of balancing Sichuan's traditional flavors with the frantic consumer demand. "Shocks from commercialization and the simplification of tastes has created a crisis," says Guanghua. "Sichuanese cuisine can't survive without its traditions, but how to preserve them and reinvigorate them at the same time?"

Now, the government and business owners alike are striving to find a balance between these two worlds: one that preserves the robust and complex dishes of the cuisine, and another that embraces the powerful heat that many of their visitors seek.

The Dish
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