Szechuan Peppercorns Gain Traction

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.

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Scott Drewno, executive chef of The Source by Wolfgang Puck in Washington, D.C., uses Szechuan peppercorn mixed with salt to season an array of menu items, including green beans, fried rice, dan dan noodles and dumplings precisely to get the ma la effect, he said.

Jeff Kreisel, executive chef at two New York properties, the Hotel Chantelle and the Ravel Hotel's Penthouse 808, uses it for his wok-charred baby octopus. He blanches the mollusk and then cooks it in a wok with hot sesame oil to give it a slightly crisp surface. Then he adds garlic, ginger and a sauce made of soy sauce, brown sugar and fish sauce.

Next, he adds water chestnuts, cilantro and toasted Szechuan peppercorns.

"You toast it like any dried spice," he said, heating it in a dry wok or skillet until you can smell it. "Go beyond that, and you burn it," he said.

"It kind of awakens your taste buds. It makes you taste all the other ingredients a lot better."

That's the conventional notion of Szechuan pepper, according to Su Jian Guo, chef of Quan Ju De restaurant in Beijing.

Visiting the U.S. for the inaugural National Congress of Chinese Cooking Skill in Culture Communication, Su said the Chinese use different varieties of the spice for different purposes — the Da Hong Pao variety is the traditional variety of choice for kung pao chicken. Fresh versions are used to combat gaminess in meat, while dried versions are used for the ma effect, he said.

It actually was illegal to import Szechuan pepper from China between 1968 and 2005 for fear the peppercorns might carry a citrus canker that would damage the United States' citrus crop.

But there was always another source of the spice: The Japanese use it too, and call it sansho.

"I find it to be a great foil to things that are rich and fatty, because it stings much like heat [from chiles] does, or acid does," said Josh DeChellis, culinary director of Niko in New York.

DeChellis pointed out that the Japanese use the leaves of the same plant as the herb kinome, and in the spring in Japan you can find the two ground together in a paste.

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"I like it in salads," he said. "I find myself making sansho vinegar, because the strength of it can be tempered and put into a medium that's more easily controlled."

In the United States, sansho usually is found in powder, which DeChellis contends is overprocessed and loses the floral subtleties that good sansho should have.

"It's a very unfair representation of sansho," he said, advising chefs instead to look for brined or pickled varieties.

He suggested asking sushi fish purveyors about sansho.

"Just start asking them. If they don't have it, more times than not they get genuinely excited about something off the beaten path that a gaijin [westerner] would bring up."

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, a New York-based chain with two brick-and-mortar restaurants, a kiosk and four trucks, serves a lemon sansho dipping sauce with its vegetarian edamame dumplings.

"The sansho pepper is a bright, floral pepper and it really gives the dip a pleasant depth as well as floral quality," managing partner Kenny Lao said.

Wade Burch, a private chef who works for a family in New York, uses Szechuan pepper in a cream sauce for Arctic char in a blood orange-soy glaze, served over wasabi mashed potatoes.

"I feel it adds a floral spice note and a noticeable tingling sensation most people are not familiar with," he said.

Matthew Anderson, chef of Umami Asian Kitchen in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, uses Szechuan peppercorns in a marinade for pork belly. He combines it with onion, garlic and ginger in oil and rubs it on cubed belly.

Next, he braises the pork and chills it. During service he reheats it and sprinkles a combination of coarsely ground Szechuan pepper and salt.

"Where else are you going to get that numbing, buzzing feeling?" he said. "It's kind of fun, that feeling on your tongue. And the flavor is a nice pine tree, fall thing."

Tim Schafer, a freelance food and beer writer based in Charlotte, N.C., adds Szechuan pepper to his stout barbecue sauce.

The forward sweetness of the stout beer and barbecue base prepare the taste buds for the oncoming zesty spiciness to follow," he said. "The sauce lends itself to pork and chicken, but I love to use it as a glaze for roasted duck."

Shawn Gawle, the pastry chef of Corton in New York, said he thinks the spice even has a place in dessert.

Looking toward spring, he's thinking of adding it to a meringue or île flottante to serve with rhubarb.

"I think it will help cut the bitterness of the rhubarb and the sweetness of the meringue and brighten everything up," he said.

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