Jing Gao​​ Thinks Sichuan Flavors Are Ever-Evolving

A look inside the pantry of Fly By Jing’s founder.

October 21, 2021
Photo by Bette Blau. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi.

Welcome to Jing Gao​​’s Pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring five staples stocking Jing’s Sichuan kitchen.

Sichuan food is known for its diabolically spicy flavor profiles, bright red bubbling hot pots, and piles of chicken dotted with chili. But like its people, Sichuan flavors are complex and ever-evolving.

Beyond hallucinogenic levels of spice or electrifying peppers, what really unifies Sichuan flavors is a complex xian (鲜) or umami quality, which draws out the essence of top-quality ingredients—without overpowering their natural flavors. This is the flavor ethos that drove me to start my modern Chinese food brand, Fly By Jing.

Although I was born in Chengdu, I spent my formative years in Europe and Canada. It wasn’t until a tech job brought me back to Asia in my 20s that I began diving deeper into the storied tradition of Chinese cuisine. As I ate bowl after bowl of sweet water noodles, zhong dumplings, and mapo tofu, I was blown away by how nuanced and sophisticated the flavors were, not to mention the care and technique required to bring them to life. This fascination led to studying with master chefs, opening a restaurant, and ultimately launching Fly By Jing in its first iteration as a traveling dinner pop-up.

Whenever I went on the road to host a dinner somewhere in the world, I packed my bags with high-quality ingredients that I couldn’t get anywhere but China. I knew why : There was very little demand from Western countries for such items due to a lack of awareness, and further, hundreds of years of bias against the cuisine and its people. Manufacturers had no reason to export first-rate products when they’re repeatedly told the market wouldn’t pay more than bargain-basement prices for them.

But whether I cooked a dinner in New York, Tokyo, or Sydney, I noticed people instantly connecting to these flavors. Many were surprised at how complex Sichuan food could be, and most had never even heard of some of the ingredients I used. Seeing people from all walks of life connect over Sichuan flavors that were so deeply personal to me planted a seed—one that grew into Fly By Jing in its current form as a direct-to-consumer sauce and spice company.

Fly By Jing has expanded into an original product line and a destination for superior Chinese ingredients, many of which are still hard to find in much of North and South America. Chinese food is a far cry from being a monolith, and introducing people to some of my favorite ingredients is just one way to broaden their horizons about this cuisine and culture. Below are five of my most versatile Sichuan pantry essentials that I use for both traditional dishes and, well, everything else. My hope is that people will take these incredible ingredients and make them their own, incorporating them not only into Sichuan recipes, but everyday cooking.

My 5 Sichuan Pantry Essentials

Photo by Bette Blau. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi.

1. Sichuan Chili Crisp

Chili crisp became the MVP of kitchen pantries across the country last year as pandemic-weary home cooks looked to add a little something extra to their food. In its simplest definition, chili crisp is an oil-based hot sauce with crispy bits of dried chili flakes, garlic, and aromatics. Fly By Jing’s version was the first all-natural chili crisp small-batch crafted in Chengdu. Because it’s made with layers of premium ingredients including the elusive tribute pepper (see below!), it is deeply savory, with a floral, tongue-tingling goodness and a warming heat that’s not overwhelming but keeps you coming back for more. It’s great on everything, from eggs to pizza to ice cream. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

2. 3-Year Aged Doubanjiang

Doubanjiang is to Sichuan cooking what mirepoix is to French cooking: It’s the base for so many regional specialties, including mapo tofu—which I often call my “last meal dish.” This not-so-secret ingredient, known as the “soul of Sichuan cooking” (a saying that's been around for centuries), is a paste made from fermented fava beans, erjingtiao chilies, and salt. It’s left to ferment for many months, imparting a rich, deep umami to any dish. The best doubanjiang is made in Pixian, a county outside of Chengdu, and although it’s really hard to find in the U.S., Fly By Jing now carries a three-year aged version that’s the finest available.

3. Tribute Peppers

Tribute peppers are a rare variety of Sichuan pepper so prized for their flavor and fragrance that they were formerly given exclusively as a tribute to the emperor, hence the name. Harvested just once a year in Qingxi, a village several hours’ drive from Chengdu, they’re actually the seed of a citrus tree and not technically a pepper. Tribute peppers add that signature Sichuan tingling sensation to a dish, as well as an intoxicating citrus bouquet—tossing them into even the simplest stir-fry or stew gives off fragrant, heady notes.

4. Preserved Black Beans

These tiny beans are an umami bomb in the best possible way; a little bit goes a long way in adding flavor and depth to your cooking. Preserved black beans, or douchi, are one of the oldest ingredients in Chinese cooking. I use them in my mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork.

5. 10-Year Aged Black Vinegar

Think of aged balsamic, but more aromatic and savory, and you have black vinegar. The main difference between black vinegar and its European counterparts is that black vinegar is made from grains, as opposed to grapes, resulting in woody notes and a round tartness. It’s my go-to for punching up everything from summer salads (with whichever vegetables look good at the farmers market) to traditional dishes like red-braised pork.

What are your pantry essentials? Tell us about them in the comments!

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Jing Gao

Written by: Jing Gao

Founder, Fly By Jing