Gone are the days of going out "for a Chinese" - and this is a good thing. There's more and better Chinese cuisine on offer in Auckland than ever, and increasingly restaurants are specialising in fare from particular regions, their menus focused on things like Xi'An's hand-pulled noodles and pita bread-ish "burgers", Shanghainese dumplings and buns, halal cuisine from the Muslim Uyghur province, Taiwanese noodle soups and Cantonese roast meats. One cuisine that seems to be especially popular with our multicultural palates here in Auckland is the famously fiery fare from Sichuan.
Sichuan (formerly Romanised as Szechuan) is a large province in Southwest China. The cuisine has become well known for its liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chillies, which add both lip-numbing qualities and Scoville-driven heat - a combination known as "ma la". A good Sichuan cook knows precisely how to balance the ma la, in dishes where that is key, and to make sure other flavours and mouthfeels are allowed to shine, too.
Here are some of our favourite Sichuan dishes around town:
GONG PAO CHICKEN
Tianze Dumpling House, 695 Sandringham Rd, Sandringham
The cheerful yellow and red interior of Tianze may as well have been designed to invigorate the senses in much the same way as their Sichuan-driven menu. In the popular dish gong bao chicken, cubes of Sichuan pepper-dusted chicken breast are stir-fried with toasted peanuts, diced carrot and celery, and plenty of garlic and dried red chilli. Unless you ask for it extra hot, Tianze's version is fairly mild - apart from those dried chilli mines.
MA PO TOFU
Spicy House, 557 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
This classic Sichuan comfort food translates as "pockmarked grandma's tofu".
Bite-size cubes of silken tofu swim in a gelatinous ma la sauce enriched with bean paste and little specks of minced pork or beef. Spicy House's version is generous with the dried red chilli and has fresh red chilli as well, plus the tart, numbing hit of Sichuan pepper and fermented black beans to add an umami note. The silky texture and plainness of the tofu provides a foil for the fire, then it's all mopped up with steamed rice - somehow this all adds up to something very comforting. Spicy House stays open very late, the fluoro strip lighting a beacon on the dark street. If you decide you need a fiery fix in the wee hours, you'll be in good company; there's often a horde of folk waiting outside for their takeaways, even at 1am.
DUMPLINGS IN SPICY SAUCE
Chongqing Noodle House, 340 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
This jazzed-up Sichuan take on dumplings features on many menus round town but the perfect al dente wrappers at Chongqing Noodle House make it my pick for best in town. Chongqing is a very big city bordering Sichuan, and in the past few years several Chongqing-specific restaurants have popped up in Auckland. Spicy soups are the mainstay in this eatery - they're very good but whatever you order, you must get a side of the dumplings in spicy sauce. The wonderfully silky wrappers cosset a simple filling of minced pork. They lie in a shallow pool of a sauce made from chilli oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, sugar and sesame.
HOT AND SOUR FERN ROOT NOODLES
Spicy Cuisine, Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Cold dishes are popular in Sichuan cooking and, unsurprisingly, they're often also very hot! These black noodles are made from a bracken fern root that grows up high on mountains. They're cooked al dente and served doused in a thin sauce made with black vinegar, garlic, sesame oil, Sichuan pepper, a bit of red chilli and perhaps a pinch of sugar, topped with a little spring onion and coriander. As the name suggests, the predominant flavours are hot (more of the pepper than chilli in Spicy Cuisine's case) and sour, from the black vinegar. I swear to you, perfectly balanced, slippery, cold, spicy noodles are just the best thing to eat on a hot, humid day - bring on summer.
DAN DAN MIAN
Eden Noodles, 105 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden
There is never not a queue to get a table at Eden Noodles; no matter the proliferation of noodle houses round town with comparable menus, Eden remains the shining light. The whole menu is worth exploring, but the noodles are the star of the show, especially when you opt to pay the extra few dollars for the hand-pulled or hand-cut variety. Some eateries go for a more Westernised, drier approach but the dan dan mian here comes in an authentically spicy-sour soup, topped with crispy, salty-sweet pork mince and pickled vegetables. Your lips will be thoroughly numbed by the peppercorns, and your constitution will be thoroughly invigorated.