Americans might not be drawn immediately to something that makes their mouth go numb, but Szechuan peppercorns, an Asian spice that does just that, is gaining popularity among some chefs.
Szechuan peppercorns are a key ingredient in Chinese five spice — which usually contains star anise, cloves, cinnamon and fennel as well — and the source of the numbness you might experience when eating a really good kung pao chicken.
“It’s a different spice than most people are used to,” said Steven Devereaux Greene, the new executive chef of An New World Cuisine — “An” is Mandarin for “tranquility" — in Cary, N.C. “It’s a lighter, more floral peppercorn, and it gives a distinct flavor,” he said.
Technically, Szechuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns at all, but the fruit of the Zanthoxylum piperitum plant, a member of the citrus family — think of the numbing effect a twist from a lemon or orange peel can have. The Chinese call that sensation ma, and if you combine that with la — or the spicy burn of chile peppers — you have the ma la experience that is very much appreciated in Szechuan and other provinces in China’s chile belt, stretching from Yunnan to Hunan.
In addition, Szechuan pepper might be a key to reducing sodium in our diet, according to Christopher Loss, director of menu research and development at The Culinary Institute of America, who thinks that stimulation might distract our tongue from noticing that there’s less salt in our food that it’s accustomed to.
Meanwhile, chefs across the country are finding it can work in a wide variety of preparations.
Green uses Szechuan pepper in a marinade for rack of lamb. He blends it with ginger, garlic, lemon grass, star anise, scallions, jalapeño peppers and cilantro in a food processor with a little mirin, dark mushroom soy sauce and a little water, and marinates a rack of lamb in the mixture for 12 hours before grilling and roasting it.
Dale Talde, chef of Talde restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a contestant in season 4 of Bravo TV’s Top Chef, said the combination of numbness and heat is an expression of yin/yang — the duality sought in many aspects of Chinese culture, from Taoist philosophy to cuisine.
“If you’re going to add a lot of heat to something, you want to add something to take away that heat,” Talde said.
Thus the burn of the peppers is mitigated by the fact that you can’t really feel it because your mouth is numb.
Talde makes a Szechuan peppercorn oil by heating vegetable oil in a wok — “get it really hot,” he said — and then tossing in the Szechuan peppercorns, turning off the heat and letting the oil cool.
He’s planning on using that to make a kung pao monkfish.
To prepare the dish he’ll heat chiles in a wok with hot oil, and then add peanuts, monkfish dredged in cornstarch, and finally a sauce made of chile bean paste, a little sweet Thai chile sauce, oyster sauce and the Szechuan peppercorn oil. The monkish is stir-fried until it’s cooked and then serve it.