In the rich and incredibly varied world that's filed in the West under "Chinese food," the cuisine of Sichuan province is my favorite. Because it's not easy to find authentic Sichuan cuisine in the U.S., I've spent years since my time in China learning how to prepare my favorite dishes at home. But since I discovered Fugu -- an unassuming spot on Gilman at State -- I've not attempted Sichuan cooking once. Why should I, when an immersive Sichuan experience is just a few blocks away?
Owner Amanda Chen, originally from Fujian province in China, says she saw a demand for Sichuan food among Madison's Chinese population.
"We have a lot of Chinese people here, and everybody was looking for traditional Chinese food; it's too far to drive to Chicago," Chen says. "Sichuan food is very popular, not just in Sichuan province but all over China."
Chen's own love of Sichuan cuisine also played a role. "My mom is from Sichuan," she says. "I especially like the spicy dishes."
Sichuan means "Four circuits of rivers." Though it was often written as "Szechuan" in accordance with old pinyin standards, modern pinyin favors the spelling I'm using. Sichuan province is located in central China, a humid part of the country prone to heavy rainfall and heat. It's considered one of China's greatest agricultural centers.
Though it's nestled between mountains and the Tibetan plateau, Sichuan has seen frequent influxes of immigrants from other Chinese provinces during times of both war and unification. As Fuchsia Dunlop writes in her lovely Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty, "Today's 'traditional' culinary repertoire incorporates many outside influences: most notably chiles from South America, but also roasting and smoking techniques that originated in the imperial kitchens in Beijing, 'red-braising' from the eastern provinces, an interest in deep-frying that is said to have come from Americans supporting the war effort in 1930s Chongqing, and all kinds of dumplings and snacks that came from northern and coastal areas."
As such, Sichuan boasts diversity in its cuisine, giving rise to the saying that "China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavor" -- a perfect summation of the Sichuan dining experience.
Many associate Sichuan cuisine with extreme spice, but that hardly does the flavor profiles justice. In a single bowl, expect a balance. Spice heat is abundant; there's a reason Chinese people ask travelers heading for Sichuan if they pa la ("fear heat"). But it exists to undercut tender, fatty meat, slippery tofu or plush eggplant. Herbaceous notes from Sichuan peppercorns, flecks of hot peppers and thick sweet-tangy sauces provide the bass lines, not screaming guitar solos. Order the dishes family-style, as you always should when enjoying a relaxed Chinese meal, and marvel at how such complex flavors meld seamlessly when combining two or three seemingly distinct dishes into a single scrumptious bowl.
That Fugu has an "American-style dishes" page -- sequestered where it belongs, at the back of the menu -- is a testament to its focus. That its clientele is largely Chinese students, who keep it buzzing during mealtimes, is a testament to its success. With a varied menu of pickled pepper dishes, black curded bean dishes, hot pot and vegetarian classics like Sichuan eggplant, plus a few Japanese items like sake and mochi thrown in to appease the gweilo, Fugu is an outstanding Sichuan experience.
First among my go-to orders is dan-dan noodles. Dan refers to the pole that street vendors traditionally used to carry them, and these fat, chewy, sloppy noodles are great for slurping alone as a cheap meal. But they're even better mixed around with mapo doufu, or "pock-marked Mother Chen's tofu" (named after a Qing-era restaurateur's wife, unfortunately marred by smallpox but blessed with gastronomical prowess). Mapo doufu features cubes of tofu in a thick, spicy sauce with flecks of pork and chicken sprinkled about as lovingly as the chili flakes that give it a mean kick.
Hate tofu, you say? Put down that sad tofu wrap, back away slowly, and learn from the folks who invented it. Instead of trying to pass this amazing food off as meat, let it shine as a canvas for a brilliant sauce and seasonings. With Sichuan peppercorns giving the dish an herbaceous, fragrant heat and a tiny amount of meat playing the garnish role rather than stealing the show, this is Sichuan soul food, and an excellent demonstration that tofu needn't be breaded and deep-fried to taste great.
Sichuan eggplant, with that garlicky sauce and soft, chewy texture that turns a hard-to-cook vegetable into a textural masterpiece, is my favorite Fugu dish. But don't ignore the meat dishes. Meat comes in slices rather than slabs in most East Asian cuisines, and shredded beef with pickled pepper is a perfect example. Green Sichuan peppers are a welcome kick against fatty bits of beef, shaved garlic and green chiles, achieving a healthy heat that settles right down under the calming influence of steamed rice.
If you're really not a spice person, the Sichuan specialty for you is tea-smoked duck. This tender, fatty, falling-from-the-bone roast duck offers charred, tannic aromas and a wonderful complement to a hot mug of jasmine tea. No matter what you try, take inspiration from Sichuan chefs and be bold, and Fugu will reward your adventurousness with a memorable meal.