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Hot & Spicy

Tongue-tingling Chinese food is indeed on the menu at Sichuan Gourment, where the focus isn't just on the fire, it's on the flavor

Dried chicken with chili sauce. Dried chicken with chili sauce. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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SHARON — Lijun Liu stands in front of a wok, flames shooting into the air. Casually tossing ingredients in the deep pan, he is unfazed by the wall of fire before him. He is making kung pao chicken, that staple of American Chinese restaurants, but his tastes little like the versions you may know. It’s complex, spicy, salty, and sweet. The meat is cut in small, uniform pieces, almost as tender as curds of scrambled egg. They are combined with peanuts and red chilies, a streamlined dish. There are no bell peppers, no gooey sauce. Kung pao — or gong bao — is a Sichuan dish, and Liu makes it like he learned it at cooking school in his native Chengdu, where he went on to cook at a three-star hotel.

Today he is the chef of Sichuan Gourmet, a restaurant he opened here in December with partner Peter Liu (no relation). It is part of a mini-chain, the chef’s fourth establishment. He opened the original Sichuan Gourmet in 2002 in Billerica, with partner Zhong Li. A location in Framingham followed two years later, and a third in Brookline last May. (The restaurant’s Chinese name is Lao Sichuan, which means “old Sichuan.’’) All of the restaurants are open tomorrow, for those looking for a place to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

In the Boston area, Chinese restaurants serve predominantly Cantonese fare, and often an Americanized version at that. But restaurant by restaurant, chef Liu is spreading true Sichuan cuisine through Massachusetts.

Is Massachusetts ready? This is a state where dishes described as “spicy’’ on menus barely make the tongue tingle. Sichuan food is typecast, with justification, as being fiery. “A lot of American people are starting to enjoy this very authentic food,’’ says Peter Liu. “Before, they just ate chop suey or noodles. But they see a lot of Chinese are going and say, ‘It must be good.’ ’’

Besides, there is much more than heat to this cuisine. There are a number of subtle, mild dishes, as well (and Liu’s menu includes some Americanized favorites). According to Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the Sichuan cookbook “Land of Plenty,’’ some estimate the province’s repertoire to be more than 5,000 dishes. The cuisine is codified into 33 cutting terms, 63 cut shapes, 56 cooking methods, and 23 official flavor combinations. They range from the scorched chili flavor of gong bao chicken to the famed hot-and-numbing flavor that comes from combining chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.

“People talk about Sichuan food being spicy, but actually it is not just spicy,’’ Peter Liu says. “It has strong flavors and a diversity of flavors. To talk about Sichuan food, it’s very difficult to use words.’’

“Use your tongue,’’ says Lijun Liu. “You have to use your tongue. Each dish is completely different.’’

He demonstrates, offering a taste of the gong bao chicken, followed by double-cooked bacon tangled up with green chilies. The first is sweet and sour, he explains, the second salty and a little sweet. Texture is also very important in his dishes, lent by such ingredients as slippery wood ear fungus and tender-crisp fresh bamboo, a world away from the fibrous slices commonly found in Chinese takeout dishes. Nothing at Sichuan Gourmet comes from a can.

“You probably won’t like this,’’ Peter Liu warns as the chef steps up again to the row of six woks in the kitchen, wearing a white coat and toque, a delicate silver hoop in his earlobe. Again, he conjures flames like a magician, sprinkling in a handful of . . . what? “It’s pork kidney.’’ Yes, but far removed from its earthy function. The meat is cut so it cooks, in the blink of an eye, into frilly, delicate slivers. It’s delicious.

Then Lijun Liu offers a glimpse into his cabinet of ingredients. There are containers of ginger, scallion, garlic, dried chilies, green chilies, bean pastes, and pickled vegetables, another mainstay of Sichuan cuisine. They pickle everything, he says. His chili sauce, a secret recipe, contains more than 20 ingredients. One of the deep-fryers in the kitchen, a remnant from the Chinese restaurant that occupied the space before Sichuan Gourmet, has been repurposed as a water bath for cooking dumplings. The restaurant relies little on deep-frying. Most of the dishes here can be made with two implements: a knife and a wok.

At cooking school in Chengdu, says Lijun Liu, “you cut cut cut cut. After a year, then you can touch the wok.’’

Both men grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where they became friends. Lijun Liu, who is 43, followed his sister here in 1996. He soon became chef at Sichuan Garden in Brookline. “He was the first person to cook Sichuan food in Boston,’’ asserts Peter Liu.

Peter Liu worked in public health in Chengdu, but he saw opportunity in the field of computers. He came to the United States around the same time Lijun Liu did, to study at Northeastern. “My story is very simple,’’ says the 48-year-old, who favors blue dress shirts and ties. “I came to this country and found a job and worked as a software engineer. Then, the economic downturn.’’ He lost his position at Lucent Technologies, part of a large round of layoffs.

“Things change so quickly,’’ he says. “When you need something, you have to catch something. That’s life.’’

Now both men are fathers. Peter Liu has an 8-year-old daughter. Lijun Liu’s son is almost 11 months. “And another baby here,’’ he says, gesturing at the new restaurant.

They chose the location for its many Chinese residents. Approximately 200 Chinese-American families live in Sharon and neighboring towns, according to the Sharon Chinese School, which offers classes in language, math, Chinese dance, and more. People from the area used to make regular trips to the Framingham restaurant, the partners say. Now Rhode Island residents drive north to eat in Sharon.

“There is a growing community in Sharon,’’ says Wing-kai To, a professor of history at Bridgewater State University and author of “Chinese in Boston: 1870-1965.’’ “Most of the new immigrants go to the better school districts. In the South Shore area, Sharon is one of the communities supposed to have higher test scores.’’

The Cantonese population in the Boston area is still high, he says, but people have increasingly emigrated from other regions since China opened up in the late ’70s. “There is still not a major immigration wave from Sichuan province,’’ he says. “It’s easier for people from the coast, Guangdong and Fujian, who come because there’s a network of business and relatives.’’ To find a Sichuan restaurant run by people from Sichuan is relatively rare. The cuisine is sometimes imitated, but its subtlety can be lost.

“Of all the cuisines, Sichuanese has been the most bastardized, in the US and other parts of the world,’’ says cookbook author and Chinese food authority Nina Simonds, who runs the blog Spices of Life. “To cook good Sichuanese food is extremely difficult — to get all of those different flavors and nuances to come and hit you at the same time. It’s a very sophisticated cuisine.’’

Lijun Liu wants to teach his customers about the real deal. At the Sharon restaurant, there is a fat binder filled with photos of his many different dishes — if not quite 5,000 — to show diners what they look like. He contemplates offering cooking classes one day.

“Cuisine is art,’’ Peter Liu says. “We come from Sichuan province. We know the soul of the food.’’

Lijun Liu nods. “We just want to open it to all the world.’’

Sichuan Gourmet, 386-388 South Main St., Sharon; 781-784-6698. Find other locations at www.laosichuan.com.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.