Szechuan peppercorns gain traction

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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.