If you’re like me, God help you, you’re a sucker for cheap thrills, like the exciting physiological response that accompanies various items of consumption.
Problem is, booze is so 2019, isn’t it? On top of that, I seem to have misplaced my copy of Aunt Poot’s novocaine cobbler recipe.
Fortunately, as we shall soon see, there are Sichuan peppercorns, begging us to place them in soups and sauces, stews and stir-fries and possibly something that doesn’t start with the letter s. Let us take a page, then, from Chinese cooks who gave us such iconic dishes as mapo tofu, and examine this seed of the shrub known as prickly ash.
Why you need to learn this
You are a creature of discernment, of refinement, of cultured good taste, and you are looking for a different kind of chemical buzz, not the kind that compels you to acts of stentorian silliness, but, the kind that leaves you free of regret. Look no further, crazy pilgrim, than the Sichuan peppercorn.
The steps you take
Before we go any farther, let’s spend a moment discussing what goes on when you taste Sichuan (also spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) peppercorns. First of all, don’t confuse them with the otherwise beloved black peppercorns. Taxonomically speaking, the former, of the genus Zanthoxylum, is only related to the latter, of the genus Piper, at the class level. That means the two plants are no more related to each other than am I to the Bactrian camel, the western long-beaked echidna or the ocelot. This bears noting simply because, when you’re cooking, you don’t want to replace Sichuan pepper with black pepper in the same way you don’t want to invite me for dinner, only to open your door to a snarling ocelot. Here’s why:
That genus Zanthoxylum contains a chemical the kids like to call hydroxy-alpha sanshool. This chemical produces on the tongue an unusual buzzy sensation that the Chinese refer to as “ma.” The mighty food writer Harold McGee likens the sensation to that of touching your tongue to the poles of a 9-volt battery, a claim that suggests you may not want to engage Mr. McGee in a game of truth or dare.
As for its flavor, many wags gas on about Sichuan pepper’s citruslike aroma, owed, no doubt, to its relative genetic similarity to citrus fruits. Fine. They probably drink booze for the “taste,” too. For me, though, it’s mostly just buzzy and coolly weird.
While you can find Sichuan peppercorns already ground, usually in a Chinese market or online, in my opinion, you’re better off with whole peppercorns. The flavor will last longer and it has more uses, as we’re about to see.
Now, to get the flavor and that tingling sensation, you could just toss a handful of whole peppercorns into whatever dish you’re making. However, if you happen to bite into one, not only is it as disquietingly crumbly as a cicada carapace, but also, you’ll get an overdose of flavor along with a tongue-load of buzzy ma that’ll put you in mind of the time Harold McGee dared you to kiss an open light socket.
Thus, most recipes will suggest other approaches for imparting the peppercorn’s blessings unto your food, to wit:
Toasting and grinding: First off, know that, because ground Sichuan peppercorns lose flavor faster than the whole specimens, you should grind only a few at a time. Before grinding, though, place the peppercorns into a shallow bowl. Pick out any stems or seeds and throw them in the trash with your dreams of securing the Democratic presidential nomination. The seeds won’t kill you; they just don’t add any flavor because it’s all in the husks.
Next, place a dry skillet over a medium flame and throw in the peppercorns. Toast them until they start to give off a musky scent, about 3 minutes. Shake the pan while they’re toasting so they don’t burn. A little smoke is OK; just don’t let them turn black.
You’ll notice that some recipes call for other spices to be toasted alongside the peppercorns. Cumin seeds are common, as are whole, dried chiles, the inclusion of which will give your dish not only that buzzy craziness but also some heat, a combination the Chinese call “mala.”
When everything’s toasted, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind the peppercorns (or spice mix) to your desired degree of coarseness. At this point, you can use the powder as is or pass it through a fine mesh strainer to eliminate any gritty bits.
Decocting into oil: Heat some neutral oil to nearly smoking in a saute pan or wok, then add a tablespoon of whole peppercorns. Fry them until they just start to turn dark, then pull them out and discard, or, mail them with no attached note to someone you want to confuse. The oil will now have that same buzzy quality and you can use it to saute or stir-fry the rest of your dish, or you can cool it down and store it in a cool, dry place to use as a garnish on top of rice, noodles, vegetables or meat.
Buying condiments: Finally, if you want to see what all the hubbub’s about without the toasting and the grinding and the decocting (extracting the flavor by heating or boiling), you can also find various premade and jarred concoctions such as chile or bean sauces or pastes in your local Asian grocery. Check the label for “Sichuan peppercorns” or “prickly ash.” You can look up uses for these pastes and sauces, or, you can just take a chance and stir a spoonful into an otherwise bland soup, stew or stir-fry. It won’t have the same complexity as an “authentic” Sichuan recipe, but it’ll totally liven up some store-bought soup. Trust me on that one.
To use Szechuan peppercorns in recipes, you can heat them in oil to extract their flavor, or grind them and use the powder.
To use Szechuan peppercorns in recipes, you can heat them in oil to extract their flavor, or grind them and use the powder. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
Sichuan-Style Noodles With Pork And Bok Choy
Prep: 20 minutes. Cook: 15 minutes. Makes: 4 servings
My friend, Zixin Lu, helped me put this recipe together. Typically, this dish would use hand-pulled noodles — something hard to come by in the States, though you can check in an Asian grocery. Substitute any kind of Asian noodle. It’s the Sichuan peppercorns that give your tongue that distinctive buzzy sensation. Increase or decrease the amount to suit your taste, remembering that your jarred chile or black bean sauce may also contain Sichuan peppercorns (aka prickly ash).
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar
1 tablespoon Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine), optional
1 piece (1 inch long) fresh ginger, peeled, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced, plus more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons Chinese chile sauce or black bean sauce
12 ounces Asian-style fresh noodles or other egg noodles
1/2 pound bok choy, chiffonade
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as peanut or canola
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1/2 pound ground pork or other meat
1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only, chopped
2 green onions, sliced
Spoon 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns into a shallow bowl; remove any black seeds or stems. Toast peppercorns in a small, dry saute pan, shaking to toss, over medium heat until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. They’ll produce a little smoke, which is fine, but take care not to let them burn. When cool, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind them into a powder. Pass them through a fine mesh sieve — such as a tea strainer — and reserve for garnish.
To make the sauce, combine soy sauce, black vinegar, Shaoxing (if using), ginger, 2 cloves minced garlic, sugar and chile or black bean sauce in a bowl. Set aside.
Cook noodles according to package directions. When nearly done, add bok choy and blanch until wilted. Drain noodles and bok choy; reserve.
Heat oil in a wok over medium high heat. When hot, carefully add peanuts and fry until cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oil and set aside.
Pour out most of the oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the wok. Return wok to high heat and add remaining 1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns. When they start to darken (about 1 minute), remove and discard, keeping oil in wok.
Add ground pork to oil in wok; stir fry until cooked through, about 3 minutes.
Add noodles, bok choy and sauce to wok; stir fry just to heat through, about 1 minute.
To serve, divide noodles among 4 bowls; garnish with fried peanuts, cilantro, more minced garlic, green onions and ground Sichuan peppercorn powder. Serve immediately.
Note: Zixin Lu suggests this: After garnishing, heat a couple tablespoons oil to sizzling and drizzle over top, then serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 392 calories, 22 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 21 g protein, 676 mg sodium, 5 g fiber