Sichuan food, sometimes spelled Szechuan in the West, is associated with simple spiciness, but it's not so simple. Sichuan cuisine actually distinguishes many different distinct varieties of spiciness, including mala (numbing spicy), suanla (sour spicy), hula (dried chili spicy), yula (pickled chili spicy), xianla (fresh chili spicy), jiangla (chili sauce spicy), and hongyou (chili oil spicy). Mala is the spiciness most associated with Sichuan food, a combination of chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns which induce a pleasantly numbing feeling in the mouth thanks to the chemical hydroxy-alpha sanshool which confuses nerve endings to produce a neurological reaction which some find alarming and others crave. But it ain't all about the mala.
Before chili peppers were introduced in the 17th century, Sichuanese were already exploiting the abundant sources of flavor in their subtropical river valley environment, including garlic, ginger, star anise, cassia bark (cinnamon) and black cardamom. Sichuan cuisine explores many different flavor profiles, hence the expression yicai yige, baicai baiwei: "Each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors'. My favorite? Guaiwei, or 'strange flavor', a complex mix of arlic, ginger, scallion, dark rice vinegar, Sichuan pepper, and chili oil used to make cold dishes confusingly delicious.
Meanwhile, Sichuan hot pot is the king of all hot pots with its spicy oil and delicious dipping sauces. Thinly sliced meat, beef trip, duck intestines and lettuce are common ingredients, as they cook quickly and absorb flavor well. The style of cooking is believed to have originated with boat trackers from Chongqing, who huddled around boiling pots in winter days cooking cheap meat and eating straight from the pot. From humble origins, Sichuanese hotpot spread across the province, country and the world.