Friday, October 1, 2010

A case of culinary masochism

"Numb" isn't a word we connect with many cuisines. So when I think about this subject dispassionately, numbness doesn't come to mind as something that I want my mouth to deal with while I'm enjoying my food.

But the problem is, I can't be dispassionate about Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, I'm absolutely bonkers about their flavor, the tingly lips and tongue I get with that first bite, the fresh aroma that teases my nostrils while they're being dry-fried, the resiny perfume that billows out of my kitchen when I grind them, the scent of them as they're ground into a fine powder and sprinkled as a finishing touch over savory dishes, and the incredible layer of pleasure and - yes - pain that occurs when Sichuan peppercorns are coupled with their perfect partners in culinary mayhem, chili peppers.

It wasn't always like this. I wasn't always a culinary masochist. Once upon a time I barely could handle jalapenos, much less their hellish brethren like habaneros and Thai bird chilies. But too many Mexican and Asian meals over the years have seared little callouses on my taste buds, and now I belly up to the chili bar with the best of them. 

This strange numbness, though... that took a bit of getting used to. Like cilantro or stinky bean curd or preserved eggs, Sichuan peppercorns are an acquired taste, but in the end they too are totally worth the effort. 

My first taste of Sichuan peppercorns was as a ground dust on top of a bowl of Sichuan-style noodles at one of my favorite dives in Taipei, and as I had had no warning of what was to befall my innocent palate, I was more than a bit taken aback. In fact, I actually dropped my chopsticks at Old Zhang's Noodle Shop in surprise. I sat there stunned as my lips lost all feeling and my tongue decided to check out for a couple of minutes in what must have been nothing short of pure shock. Sweat burst out of every pore on my body, as I remember, but it was the assault on my mouth that confused me. 

However, being hungry (as I usually am), I picked up my chopsticks and forged ahead. After a few moments of tentative munching, that delectable bowl of Dan Dan Noodles cajoled me like a cruel but tender mistress, the soft doughy tendrils writhing in flavors that blinkered between sour and spicy and sweet, between creamy and salty and numbing. Sichuan's fierce flower pepper beat down the last of my resistance, convincing me to slurp up every last drop of the sauce, and leading me to search the menu on the wall for something even more numbing. I submitted to these new sensations, and I loved it.

Welcome, everyone, to my very first R-rated meal.

So what are Sichuan peppercorns? I've heard them called prickly ash, which doesn't sound like something I'd care to eat, as it brings to mind hideous memories of summer camp and calamine lotion.  The Chinese name is much prettier: huajiao, or "flower pepper," perhaps because the shiny black peppercorns themselves always appear encased in their red round pods. They grow on bushy trees that are covered with thorns, and so when I say that a friend gave me a nice bagful of fresh peppercorns that she had painstakingly harvested, I mean that literally. These guys do not want to be picked. 
Chiaying's peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorn plants grow easily from seed or softwood cuttings, though, so if you want to have a go at cultivating your own, you should be able to have a tiny harvest in a few years. And if the promise of growing your very own peppercorns is not enough, the tender spring leaves are what the Japanese call kinome, and they are certainly a delicacy worth growing. Expensive and rare, these tiny serrated leaves possess a gentle fragrance that is followed by some of that Sichuanese heat. The window where the fresh leaves are perfect for eating is short, so you have to be on your toes around these plants.

Sichuan peppercorns should be dried and then kept in a closed container in a cool, dry place. They keep pretty well, but if you're going to be keeping them for a very long time - over a year, say - I'd recommend placing them in a freezer bag and storing them in the freezer.

Now, let's get to the good part: making things out of Sichuan peppercorns.

The easiest thing to make out of these little gems is Roasted Sichuan Pepper and Salt Dip (see the squash blossom recipe from last month), and second to that  is Numbing Chili Oil. This is a staple in my kitchen, and one that I hope will soon be a part of your culinary arsenal, too. The quantities are rather fluid here: you can adjust the heat easily by adding more plain oil to the finished product, but if you want it even hotter, use less oil. Make this your own private recipe by balancing the heat, the numbness, and the other flavors by adding more or less sesame oil, a couple strips of dried tangerine peel, some star anise, slices of fresh ginger... whatever rocks your personal boat. The most important thing here is to gently fry the spices in the oil, giving them a chance to release their fragrance and slowly slowly slowly blacken, as this will give the oil a nice smokiness. 
Putting the "prickly" in prickly ash

Use this oil wherever a bit of heat and lip-tingling is desired. Noodles become divine with a good dollop of this this, and you can't go wrong adding it to dipping sauces for Chinese dumplings (jiaozi), sprinkled over stir-fries, or added to cold dishes, especially anything with chicken. 

I could easily imagine drizzling this over some rich vanilla ice cream. But then again, I am bonkers about the stuff.

Numbing chili oil
Chili peppers & peppercorns
Malayou  麻辣油
Makes about 2 cups oil

3 cups vegetable oil (peanut oil is great here)
Handful of dried chilies (any kind will do depending upon your tastes; I like chiles de arbol with a couple of dried chipotles and pasillas to flavor the mix)
Handful of ground dried chilies (the coarsely ground chilies in Korean markets work particularly well here)
Handful of dried Sichuan peppercorns
Roasted sesame oil to taste
1. Put the vegetable oil, chilies, ground chilies, and Sichuan peppercorns in a quart saucepan. Bring the pot to a simmer over high heat and then immediately lower it to a gentle shimmer. Let the spices slowly roast in the oil. All the spices will eventually turn black, which is what you want, as this will add a smokiness to the oil, but they must be cooked slowly so that they don't char and turn bitter. 

2. As soon as the spices are either a very dark brown or black, remove the pan from the heat. When the oil has come to room temperature, add some roasted sesame oil to taste and then either pour the oil and the spices into a clean quart jar or strain out the spices and pour the oil into a clean bottle. Either way, store the oil in a cool, dark place, and it will be fresh and delicious for at least a month. Consider pouring a bit of the strained oil into a small squirt bottle so that you can use it as a finishing sauce whenever you want to give a dish a little oomph.


  1. All I could find was ground prickly this going to be OK as a substitute? I can't wait to try it. The ground ash has a resin-like quality, but it does have that numbing effect I love.

    1. Ground will probably work all right, as long as it is fresh. I always buy my spices whole, though, because they keep their pungency longer that way. If your local markets don't carry the whole peppercorns, though, make do with what you have!

      You might also consider purchasing Sichuan peppercorns (and other spices) online. Whole Spice in Napa, California, has some really excellent things, and this month they have a 30% off special; coupon code is NOVEMBER.

      Manyong! (Bon appetit!)