Desmond Chang has spent much of the past year in steaming kitchens and pungent food production facilities scattered around Chengdu — arguably the city with the spiciest cuisine on the planet. In all-night sessions over hotpots and baijiu (a potent alcoholic spirit), he conspired with local residents Xu Fan and Yang Wen to make this mind-numbing cuisine even hotter.
Xu is one of the top Sichuan chefs in this central Chinese city, while Yang is a renowned culinary instructor. Xu has 10 restaurants around China, and he's among dozens of top Sichuan chefs who are protégés of Yang.
For months, the trio traipsed around the capital city of Sichuan province, experimenting with spicy, fermented sauces, rare ginger and chilis, and long-lost recipes with the goal of assembling a definitive catalog of Sichuan cuisine.
Then, one delicious night in late November of 2019, all the preparation led to a gastronomic curtain call. Lights were dimmed and designer porcelain filled the tables, as dozens of delicacies were dished out in a culinary "Super Bowl" of Sichuan cuisine.
Chang is from Hong Kong, where he runs Inhesion Group, maker of fine tableware, including the exquisite pieces matched to the event's three-hour feast. He's also the force behind Inhesion's Ruyi Gastronomy, a series of celebrations of Chinese cuisine around the country, served on specially designed tableware from Inhesion's Legle France.
The event, entitled "24 Flavors of Sichuan," was the ninth in the series. Presented to a select group of chefs, food writers and gourmands last month, the 17-course meal will be featured on a special menu through June of 2020 at Xu's Creative Cuisine in Chengdu, China.
"We want everyone to be able to experience the incredible 24 flavors of Sichuan cuisine," Xu said.
China is home to some of the world's oldest and most highly defined styles of cooking. But by many measures, Sichuan food has rarely been afforded such lofty status.
"It's celebrated because it's very diverse, with everything from cheap street eats to very elevated banquet cooking," said Fuchsia Dunlop, acclaimed author of food books that include "Land of Plenty," "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China," and her latest "The Food of Sichuan."
Dunlop was the first westerner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and is widely considered the world's most influential writer on Sichuan cuisine.
One side effect of the popularity of Sichuan cuisine in China and abroad has been an overemphasis on snacks and hearty dishes like hotpot, which Dunlop calls "wonderful" but notes that "they're only part of a very rich and varied cuisine." She described Sichuan cuisine as complex yet subtle with flavors and dishes that range from excitingly spicy to very delicate.
Around China, the view is that Sichuan food consists mainly of three flavors: hot, hotter and mind-numbing.
"Actually, Sichuan cuisine is much more sophisticated," Chang said. While the chilis and unique Sichuan peppercorns responsible for the explosive, mouth-tingling sensations attract most of the attention, he maintained: "Most of the dishes aren't even hot at all."
Much of the flavor in Sichuan cuisine comes from a variety of dynamic sauces, including the mainstay doubanjiang, a fermented broad bean chili paste.
"There has never been a comprehensive look at Sichuan cuisine from a local, national or international level," Yang said.
That was what initiated the trio's work. Researching the roots of Sichuan cuisine over centuries, they began to compile what they believe is the definitive directory of the 24 flavors of Sichuan cuisine. Of the 24 identified flavors, fewer than half exhibit the spiciness commonly associated with the cuisine.
"It was difficult because very little is written down," Chang said, noting that with Cantonese cuisine — the food of southern China and Hong Kong — shelves are filled with books of recipes and ingredients.
"So much in Sichuan is verbal, even the notion of 24 flavors. We started by putting down the first 17 or so, which everyone agrees on," Chang said. "But the last seven, oh no. You go to a restaurant, and everything is different."
Indeed, if you travel around Sichuan Province and order staples like gong bao ji ding (known globally as kung pao chicken), you will rarely taste the same dish cooked the same way.
"To me," Chang said, "Sichuan cuisine is like jazz — all about creativity and spontaneity."
Sichuan food is unquestionably on the rise, in China and around the world.
Andre Chang is a Taiwanese chef who helmed the three Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens in France and then rose to superstar status with Restaurant André in Singapore, which was ranked number 2 on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list before he closed it in 2018.
His reemergence came this year at Sichuan Moon, where he's offering 26-course tasting menus of his high-end interpretation of Sichuan cuisine at Macau's Wynn Palace.
Global interest intensified in 2010 after Chengdu became China's first City of Gastronomy on a list compiled by UNESCO to honor unique food heritage.
"I don't think it has peaked," Dunlop said of Sichuan cuisine's popularity. "It's a very, very diverse and exciting cuisine, and there's lots more to discover. I think we're still at the beginning of that discovery."
What: Ruyi Gastronomy's "24 Flavours of Sichuan Cuisine" is available until June of 2020.
Where: No. 5, 6th floor, Block A of Renhe Spring Shopping Mall located on Chenghan South Road in Gaoxin District, Chengdu
Cost: 980 Chinese renminbi ($139) per person, exclusive of tax
Reservations: Online reservations at Xu's Creative Cuisine are not available in English, but can be made by calling +86 28-63913306.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect a new end date for "24 Flavours of Sichuan Cuisine"