Szechuan peppercorns gain traction

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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.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary