These special peppers are essential to genuine Sichuan food.
THE LIP-TINGLING, mouth-numbing effect of Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper is so important to Sichuan cuisine that it has its own word: ma. Intensely aromatic with a floral-like citrus flavor, Sichuan pepper isn’t spicy, but it’s often paired with spicy hot (la) peppers to create the flavor most commonly associated with Sichuanese food, ma la.
The spice is not related to other peppercorns; rather, it is the berry of a small prickly tree that’s part of the citrus family in the genus Zanthoxylum. All the flavor and effect come from the colored husk that surrounds a tiny (tasteless) black seed.
About five years ago, chef, author, dairy farmer, cheesemaker and ice-cream maven Kurt Timmermeister considered writing a book on Chinese food. He planted the ingredients he’d need on his farm on Vashon Island, including Sichuan pepper trees, which he’d found at a local nursery in 4-inch pots. Those trees are now about 12 feet tall and produce well, but they aren’t for the faint of heart. Timmermeister reports that they’re “shrubby, not pretty, and they have the worst, nasty thorns.” At the end of summer, he makes raspberry-Sichuan pepper ice cream for his Kurt Farm Shop on Capitol Hill by steeping cream from his Jersey cows with the Sichuan pepper he picks from his trees and adding raspberries from his farm.
Award-winning chef, author and restaurateur Jerry Traunfeld is a longtime fan of Chinese cuisine. The logo at Lionhead, his culinary temple to Sichuan cuisine on Capitol Hill, is a stylized Sichuan peppercorn — it was its fragrance Traunfeld first fell in love with.
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Ramzi Madbak, chef de cuisine at Lionhead, loves the numbing effect of Sichuan pepper, which he likens to “the electric shock you get when you bump your elbow.” And then, “It awakens your palate … numbs the feeling but not your taste buds; it’s like you’re breathing the flavors in a whirlwind of senses.”
Sichuan pepper also is a fascinating and potent ingredient because it changes the perception of other flavors and adds another dimension to the eating experience. Baijiu, a Chinese grain-based alcohol usually made from sorghum (Poppy offers a large selection), and beer make good accompaniments, but it makes wine unpalatable and even changes the way water tastes.
When I asked my server at Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan Restaurant in the International District which dishes had Sichuan pepper, she warned me that I might not like it. I had the “Szechuan-style chicken” — very tender, small cubes of chicken in a slick, mildly spicy red oil sauce with scallions and onions. The dish delivered on its promise of lip-tingling numbness, but not overwhelmingly so, and I liked it very much.
Across the street at Sichuanese Cuisine, Yun Snu Chen asked me twice whether I was sure about my order. When I explained that the Sichuan peppers were what brought me there, she nodded approvingly and told me that for her, a meal without Sichuan pepper feels like it’s missing something. She also explained in no uncertain terms that a kitchen without Sichuan pepper cannot be making real Sichuan food. In fact, three of the most well-known Sichuan dishes, ma po dou fu, dandan noodles and Kung Pao chicken, should include the spice, but sadly, I’ve eaten plenty of them without a trace of it.
As an intro to using the spice at home, Traunfeld suggests making Sichuan pepper-flavored salt by mixing 1 tablespoon of freshly toasted, finely ground Sichuan pepper with ½ cup kosher salt. Use it to season anything — try it on scrambled eggs, fresh vegetables, popcorn, French fries or fried chicken. If you love it, you always can increase the ratio of pepper to salt.