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Szechuan vs Sichuan: is there a difference?

The Chinese king of spice has arrived — today we’re talking Sichaun cuisine…or wait, Szechuan?? (We’ll get into that later)

My mouth’s already tingling.

First, let’s travel to Sichaun:

Sichuan is a province in Southwest China, and the capital city is Chengdu. It’s the 6th-largest provincial economy and to put that into context, compared to a country, it would be the 18th-largest economy as well as the 19th most populous as of 2021.

Isn’t data mind-boggling?

On the cuter side, they’re also known for their many panda stations and reserves, such as the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda.

Now let’s talk Sichaun spice:

If you’ve had it, you can instantly remember the numbing, tingling power of the spice and this is what Sichaun food is most famous for.

That’s what’s called málà, which is a combination of two Chinese characters: "numbing" () and "spicy (piquant)" (), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.

The culprit? These potent Sichaun peppers.

Don’t be charmed by their cute size, they contain 3% hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, aka a molecule that makes your taste buds go ow in the best way.

The history behind the spice:

Many sources attribute the development of mala dishes to night markets in Chongqing that targeted pier workers in the 19th to 20th century.

The strong flavor and thick layer of oil help preserve foods and remove the unpopular smells of cheap foods that were common during that time, such as solidified blood, beef stomach, and kidney, which were usually served to pier workers.

In America, Sichaun styles arrived in the 1950s, brought primarily by Taiwanese immigrants.

More on Sichaun cuisine:

It’s known as one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine, and the most prominent traits of Sichuanese cuisine are described by four words: spicy, hot, fresh, and fragrant.

A number of Sichaun dishes have broken through a first level of mainstream appearance in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. like mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, kung pao chicken, and my favorite, hot pot.

Alright, my stomach’s grumbling. Anyone else?

But what about the name confusion? Sichaun -vs- Szechaun?

Say those names three times quickly, and you’ve got yourself a tongue twister.

To trace the name origins, we have to look at the pattern of Chinese immigration in America, along with the development of different romanization systems, that transliterated Chinese words into the roman alphabet.

According to the Google Books Ngram viewer, “Szechuan” begins to appear back since around 1871, while “Sichuan” only appears a whole century later. The spelling of Sichuan didn’t arrive on American shores until the late 1970s.

To understand why we started with “sz” to mean “s,” we have to look at the Wade-Giles system. It was the main system relied on in the early 1900s, and gave birth to the specific transliteration of Szechuan (and the less common Szechwan).

These systems were created by and for native English speakers, trying to phonetically transcribe sounds that weren’t present in the English language. They're pretty close approximations, but due to trade relations and immigration patterns, the resulting sounds tended to be a mixed bag of dialects and irregular pronunciation. This can be confusing and problematic for native Chinese speakers.

The spelling of ‘Sichuan’ wouldn’t exist until the 1950s, with the creation of Hanyu Pinyin by a Chinese linguist. Together with a country-wide effort of standardization and literacy, the use of Pinyin spread throughout mainland China, and in 1979 the Chinese government established it internationally as China’s official method of romanization.

So when immigration from mainland China to America began in the early 1970s, the folks moving brought with them a larger variety of Chinese food, and also Szechuan’s Pinyin sibling, “Sichuan."

So today, you’ll find “Sichaun” used more frequently on the wes coast and “Szechaun” more on the east. (And by the infamous McDonald’s x Ricky & Morty sauce.)


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