THE STRANGEST SPICE

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It tastes like flowers and feels like a live wire; no pantry should be without it. In a new food column, Jon Fasman considers Sichuan peppers …

 Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

There are many drawbacks to becoming a food writer—money and fatness spring to mind. But they all pale in comparison to the problem of translation. When food delights it does not delight in words; it delights in a way that exceeds, or slips past, or twists around words. People who write about music have this same problem, which is why both fields seem to turn out so many gossipy profiles: you can’t describe a transcendent song or dish, but you can easily describe the marital or financial peccadilloes of the person who created them. A meal is usually memorable for reasons ancillary to the food—the company, or the setting—but even when the food itself is memorable, memory calcifies it. It is a rare taste that breaks through the film of words.

All of this is by way of saying that about six years ago I sat down with three others for the full ten-course parade at Per Se, complete with wine pairings. I remember the austere but elegant restaurant, the way that around course five the meal tipped from Lucullan into some sort of strange performance art, but I can recall only one taste from the fifty or so dishes we tried that night: a single shortbread cookie, around the size of a domino, flavoured with Sichuan pepper and served as a companion to some sort of warm-spice ice-cream (cinnamon, I think, though it could have been anise or nutmeg).

That was not my first taste of the spice: its more familiar habitat, as its name suggests, is in the cuisine of south-western China. New York’s Grand Sichuan restaurants have made their reputation largely through liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies. And Peter Chang—a prodigiously gifted and famously itinerant genius of Sichuanese cuisine—has been the subject of Mash notes from more exalted food writers than I (such as Todd Kliman and Calvin Trillin), largely for his expert use of the spice. Mr Chang seems to have made Atlanta his home. This is where I now live, as a correspondent for The Economist, and a few months back, at a strip-mall restaurant in the strip-mall suburb of Marietta, he made us a palate-blowing Sichuanese meal. Three dishes linger: an uncharacteristically austere, almost haunting soup of sea bass and pickled mustard greens; “hot and numbing” cured beef; and an immense plate of prawns deep-fried with a tangle of leeks, chilies and candied orange peel, dusted with roasted Sichuan pepper.

That spice is what makes Sichuanese food so unusual, addictive and different in physical sensation from any other cuisine. It is called a pepper because it looks like a peppercorn. In fact, the Sichuan pepper is a dried ash-plant berry, from a family of evergreens related to citrus trees and unrelated to Piper negrum, which produces black and white pepper. Its close relationship to citrus trees kept it out of the United States for decades: it was believed capable of carrying citrus canker, a bacterial disease harmless to people but capable of decimating citrus crops. The ban ended in 2005 as long as any imported Sichuan pepper is heated to kill any potential citrus canker.

Unlike traditional peppers—either of the black and white or the capsicum (chili) variety—it produces no heat; instead, it has an intensely floral taste and produces a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue. (The anaesthetic property is strong enough that Sichuan peppercorn plants were often used to relieve the pain of toothache; a particular compound in the plant targets two types of anaesthetic-sensitive neuron). For that reason it pairs well with chilies: the chili sears your tongue and the peppercorn numbs it.

As a devoted fan of Sichuanese cuisine, I have managed to ruin several dinners through injudicious use of the peppercorn. For those who feel confident enough to cook with these peppers at home, I offer some words of hard-earned guidance:

1.     Though it looks and tastes as though Mr Chang simply hurls handfuls of peppercorns into a dish with abandon, if you do this you will create a dish that tastes like detergent. The key here, as in all things, is balance: Sichuan pepper shines in the presence of other strong flavours, notably hot (chilies) and sour (the floral notes in fruit, such as citrus zest, work better than the sweet ones in vinegar).

2.     Examine the peppercorns before you use them. They should be open reddish pods. If they are closed, you need to lightly crush them and remove any interior black seeds before you use them. The seeds have a bitter taste and an unpleasant gritty texture. Nobody likes the taste of sand. Most bags of peppercorns also have a few twigs thrown in. Take the time to remove them; no one likes the taste of them either.

3.     Don’t just toss them in raw: take a moment and toast them first in a dry pan, then set them aside. It mellows their flavour. When raw, the peppercorns taste too assertive and soapy.

You can now buy Sichuan peppercorns anywhere, though it is far cheaper to get them from an Asian store than a western one. By way of comparison, I bought a four-ounce bag with an adorable mother-and-child panda emblem on the front for $1.99 at a Chinese supermarket. My previous four-ounce stash from Penzey’s cost $5.49. I have noticed no difference in quality.

The best way to use them is the way you like to use them, which is to say: experiment. Here are two of my standbys to get you started.

Sichuan cucumbers: Peel, seed and slice four cucumbers. Toss the slices with about a tablespoon of salt (Kosher, Maldon or coarse-ground sea salt; if you only have regular iodised salt, use less. Toast a tablespoon of Sichuan peppercorns, then put them in a small bowl, together with 4-8 cloves of garlic, minced fine; a tablespoon of ginger, sliced into threads; and some red pepper flakes (I find that any more than 2 teaspoons makes this dish inedible; any less than ½ a teaspoon is pointless). In another bowl mix together two tablespoons of brown sugar, three tablespoons of unseasoned rice vinegar (in a pinch white-wine or cider vinegar will do; if you only have balsamic, use less sugar) and a tablespoon of soy sauce. Film a pan with equal parts sesame oil and neutral oil (ie not olive oil, which is too strong-tasting for this recipe), then sauté the peppercorn mixture for around 30 seconds, until they start to smell cooked and mellow rather than raw. Then add the vinegar mixture and the cucumbers. Bring the whole thing to a brief boil, then scrape everything into a bowl (preferably a shallow one, so you won’t have some cucumbers submerged and others untouched by the sauce, and under no circumstances aluminium) and refrigerate. The pickles will be ready to serve the next day, and won’t keep more than a few days.

The best rub for grilled pork or chicken: Put into a dry frying pan: 2 tablespoons each of fennel seeds and black peppercorns; 3 tablespoons of Sichuan peppercorns; ½ a cinnamon stick; 4 star anise. If you’d like to add a few whole cloves or coriander seeds, feel free. Toast them for a few minutes, just until they smell warm and fragrant. Grind them to powder. I use a coffee grinder, but do be sure to clean it before your coffee the next morning. Combine them with ¼ cup each brown sugar and kosher salt. Use liberally; it will keep, sealed in a cupboard, for a few months. [Recipe adapted from Steven Raichlen.]

 

Jon Fasman is the Atlanta correspondent for The Economist and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City". Picture Credit: 96dpi (via Flickr)