This section covers some chili basics. This is not an exhaustive list of chilis and chili pastes for Chinese cooking, but rather a short list of some of the items listed in Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook. For each item I'll include an image with key characters circled on the label and an English explanation. Click on the images to see larger versions. There are many brands available, so if any of my readers out there have experience with other brands and can make recommendations please contribute in the comments!
You'll find an assortment of dried chilis available in any Asian grocery store. The most common type that I've noticed are the thin pods about 2 inches long. I use those a lot. But if you're looking for "Facing Heaven" chilis, which are commonly used in Sichuan cuisine, this is what you're looking for. Take a note of the circled characters as they say "facing heaven." NOTE: Always look over dried chili packages carefully for mold. I think these items can sit around a long time before they reach the store shelves. I found some lovely looking dried chilis that looked almost fresh, so supple did their dried skins appear, but upon closer inspection some had become moldy.
Chili Bean Paste
According to Dunlop, Sichuan chili bean paste should be made with fava beans (broad beans), but other regions in China use soybeans instead. These two brands use a mix of fava and soybeans, and will certainly do the trick. The darker the paste, the more "mature" it is. You can also use Lan Chi Chili Paste with Soybeans as an alternative.
This brand of chili bean paste uses only fava beans and is imported from Sichuan province. There's no English on the main label, so it helps to recognize the Chinese characters and then confirm (if possible) the English ingredient label. The contents are less paste-like than the others, and instead look more like chopped-up chilis and fava beans (which they are).
Two brands of salted chopped chilis. There are innumerable types of salted chilis available, including some with green chilis. Salted chilis are preserved with salt, but the bottled versions in stores generally also contain vegetable oil and even MSG. Unfortunately, I don't know which brands are considered "the best." And what are chopped chilis preserved in salt? A form of pickled chilis! So I think you can use these as substitutes in recipes that call for pickled chilis... but if you want something that is specifically labled as "pickled chilis," read on to the next item.
Sichuanese pickled chilis are preserved in a brine of salt, sugar, wine or vinegar, and spices. All sorts of chilis are preserved this way. This kind is a long red chili, but you can also find green ones. In a pinch, Sambal Oelek (Indonesian chili paste) can substitute. According to Dunlop, if you find tiny red pickled chilis, they are probably Thai chilis and are viciously hot.
As I said, this isn't intended to be a comprehensive list, but I hope that having bottle labels and a few characters identified will make it easier to spot these items.
Here in Ann Arbor, all of these items are available at Hua Xing, and I've seen some of them at Tsai Grocery as well. And I'm sure they can also be found at the sizable Chinese grocery on Plymouth Rd. in the strip mall near Nixon. At Hua Xing, the bottled and pickled chilis were in the same aisle, but the dried chilis were with the other dried herbs and spices.