These robustly flavored ingredients are featured in mapo tofu and many other Sichuan and Chinese dishes. They are readily available online and in Asian markets and are increasingly available in American supermarkets. They keep indefinitely and are worth seeking out to produce authentic flavors.

Sichuan peppercorns

These reddish-brown husks are neither peppercorns nor are they related to chiles. They’re the dried fruit rinds of the Chinese prickly ash tree. Sichuan peppercorns have a lemony tartness and a piney aroma, but they are best known for the unique tingling sensation they produce on the lips and tongue, thanks to a compound called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which acts on receptors that usually respond to touch. The peppercorns don’t actually vibrate our skin, but they send signals to the brain that we interpret as vibration; some people also mistakenly perceive these signals as heat.


Substitute

None

Sichuan chili powder

This product is made from the dried, crushed pods of “Facing Heaven” chile peppers (so named for their habit of pointing upward on plants as they grow, rather than hanging down the way most chile peppers do). It is similar in appearance to Western red pepper flakes but is milder and more aromatic.


Substitute

Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru) or use ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 2½ teaspoons of ancho chile powder per tablespoon of Sichuan chili powder.

Asian broad bean chili paste

Also labeled doubanjiang or toban djan. This deep reddish-brown paste, which is made from a combination of red chiles, broad (fava) beans, salt, and wheat flour, is fermented for up to eight years. It is an essential flavoring in many Sichuan dishes, lending them a funky, meaty depth along with heat from the chiles. The best ones come from the Chinese city of Pixian and will typically contain no other ingredients. Pixian broad bean chili paste can be ordered online. Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Sauce is widely available in supermarkets and is another good option.


Substitute

None

Fermented black beans

Also known as salted black beans, these are small black soybeans that are fermented with salt. In the process the beans soften, shrivel, and dry out, resembling raisins. They are very salty and are used sparingly to provide umami depth and savoriness to many Chinese dishes.


Substitute

Fermented black bean paste or sauce. Use about one-third less since these products are concentrated.