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Sichuan Peppercorn

Chinese

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#1 jhlurie

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 12:37 PM

Okay.  So about a week ago the Perlows call me up and ask me to meet them at China 46--the site of the second NJ eGullet dinner.

Jason, out of a perverse need to try everything on the menu at least once, notices that there is a dish we haven't tried yet.  I'm not sure of the exact name, but it was a boring name--something like Capsicum Beef.

The dish was FAR from boring.  In fact, it's been the source of something of a culinary mystery for Jason, Rachel, myself, and now tommy and mrs. tommy.  Actually, to be accurate the REAL source of the mystery was the accompanying condiment (which was also apparently a marinade for the dish as well).

Describing it afterwards, I explained it to tommy, via the Messenger, as follows.  Please excuse my worse than usual command of the english language...

{the owner of China 46} Cecil's English is good, but this is something that he mis-describes in English--which is part of the problem.

The dish was called something like Capsicum Beef, or something like that.  It was big strips of beef in a big soupy bowl full of vegetables, in a brown-looking sauce, and with enough ginger to kill a horse.

But the Ginger (as strong as it is) is not the secret ingredient.   In fact, I usually don't like that much ginger, but it works because it's combined with this substance that (once again) Cecil describes as Capsicum... but it's NOT that yellow oil he showed us {on a previous visit}. And it's not hot Chili Oil.  Capsicum seems to be his generic term for anything he makes from any kind of peppercorn.  This is a blackish concoction in a little dish that he also revealed was already marinated into the meat in lesser amounts. He showed us a bag of the peppercorn it came from, and they are unremarkable looking reddish-black colored peppercorns he referred to as Shaghai Peppercorn--the taste of which he said even many Shangai people find exotic.

The taste is the weirdest thing we've had in a long time.  It's almost the reverse of conventional spicyness.  There is a tingle on your lips, and in your mouth... but it's NOT the same slightly painful tingle you get from red peppers.  It's like that feeling you get when you leave some slightly acidic fruit juice on your outer lip for too long, but stronger and still not quite an equivalent (it's not acidic either... I'm just trying to describe the feeling).  Then, the oddest thing, is that when you take a sip of water afterwards, this oil of whatever is still in your mouth and the water tastes really really weird (Rachel thinks the water tastes lemony... but I just thought "weird").

I haven't even come close in describing this.  It's one of the strongest tastes I've ever had (and I know at least part of that is coming from the Ginger as well, but still it was strong) and I can't describe the damned thing.


tommy and the mrs. have had this now, and by his reaction they seemed just as pleased, but mystified, as the rest of us (except Rachel Perlow, who hated it) were.  I still think my description to tommy was somewhat inadaquate, but after eating it tommy thinks that my description isn't that far off.

Anyone have any idea what the heck we are dealing with?
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#2 tommy

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 12:49 PM

it is called szechuan peppercorn.  it's part of the classic chinese 5 spice, in addition to star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel.  it does in fact have a clove-like flavor.  i got the following from a website:

"Szechwan peppercorn = Sichuan peppercorn = Szechuan peppercorn = anise pepper = brown peppercorn = Chinese aromatic pepper = Chinese pepper = flower pepper = sancho = Japanese pepper = Japan pepper = wild pepper = fagara pepper   Notes:  These aren't true peppercorns, but rather dried flower buds."


Posted Image

it is one of the most intense flavors i've ever experienced.  it actually numbs your tongue and lips.  cecil, the host of china 46, was kind enough to give me some of these little suckers to take home.  i have no idea what i'm going to do with them.

for the record, mrs. tommy was not with me last night.  it was just the boys.  which turned into "boys night out shooting pool til 3 am", which turned into a stop at McDonalds this morning at 8 am.

#3 jhlurie

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 12:57 PM

moderator.  Please see if you can change the topic title to "The mystery of the Sichuan Peppercorn".  I'll bet Cecil really DID say that most Shanghai people don't like it.  Now that comment makes MUCH more sense!

It's odd.  I've had TONS of Sichuan food in my life and never had this.  I guess they keep it in reserve.  It's intensity in that 5-spice mixture (which I'm sure that I've had lots of times) must be much less.  Pure, it's a whole different experience.

And its not even a peppercorn.  Interesting.
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#4 mamster

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 01:20 PM

jhlurie, I had a similar experience.  I've eaten tons of so-called Szechuan food in my life, but I never had a real szechuan peppercorn experience like that until my first meal at Grand Sichuan International.  There were about ten of us at the table studiously pointing out peppercorns to one another so we could all share in the experience.  It was your basic drug party.
Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"
Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

#5 jhlurie

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 01:33 PM

There were about ten of us at the table studiously pointing out peppercorns to one another so we could all share in the experience.  It was your basic drug party.

Accch.  Please... it's an Oriental flower bud.  Please don't suggest any illegal possibilities!!!  :biggrin:
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#6 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 02:46 PM

Jon described it pretty acurately and yes, I didn't care for it. What's the point of food that numbs your mouth?

#7 mikey

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 03:40 PM

I first encountered sichuan peppercorns through the Time-Life Foods of the World books, and found them at our local Chinese grocery. I used them in a dish variously called "Ants Climbing Trees" or "Ants in Trees", which is basically cellophane noodles and ground pork seasoned with soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns(ground), and some other things I really don't remember now. The taste is sort of spicy/nutmeggy, but I don't remember any numbing effect.

#8 jhlurie

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 03:49 PM

I first encountered sichuan peppercorns through the Time-Life Foods of the World books, and found them at our local Chinese grocery. I used them in a dish variously called "Ants Climbing Trees" or "Ants in Trees", which is basically cellophane noodles and ground pork seasoned with soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns(ground), and some other things I really don't remember now. The taste is sort of spicy/nutmeggy, but I don't remember any numbing effect.

Well, I don't really think it was "numbing"--at least to me.  I didn't have ANY trouble feeling my lips or tongue.  They just felt different.

It's also possible that the quantities were different.  The main taste it competed with was the fresh ginger, and a good amount of cilantro, in the dish I had.
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#9 tommy

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 03:56 PM

OK - so guess where we're going tonight? If you want to join us, see you at China 46 around 7:30. (this message will be deleted after dinner)

crap, i'm at home but i just had a sandwich.  maybe i'll purge and see you there. that would make 3 nights in a row.  i think they are growing sick of me.  :smile:

#10 Sandra Levine

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Posted 24 April 2002 - 07:11 PM

Szechuen or Sichuan pepper is a key ingredient in "Millionaire Chicken," see link below.  I originally found this recipe in Grace Zia Chu's "The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking."

http://www.themessin.....e Chicken.htm

My edition of this book (paper, 1969) falls open to the page this recipe is on.  It's a great picnic dish that used to be very popular when this was the Chinese cookbook of choice.
Chu notes that the original Chinese name is Odd Flavor Chicken.

#11 Adam_Balic

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 12:57 AM

I read about these Sichuan peppercorns and their famous mouth numbing properties a few years ago, so I bought a pound or so. Tried several recipes, no mouth numbing, very sad. Maybe my batch was old and tired?

I seem to recall that you are only ment to use the reddish husk not the black seed as it gives a gritty texture to the meal. This would be a complete pain in the arse to do, so I wonder if anybody bothers?

#12 tony h

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 03:22 AM

Wrap them in mulsin so they impart the flavour - remove them at the end - no grit.  Good when making veg nage - also use 2 star anise - using more over powers the stock.

#13 Adam_Balic

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 03:39 AM

Ah thank you, so obvious really.

#14 Jinmyo

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 04:47 AM

I also use a large metal tea ball. But usually I grind and sift them.
"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

#15 tommy

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 06:00 AM

I seem to recall that you are only ment to use the reddish husk not the black seed as it gives a gritty texture to the meal. This would be a complete pain in the arse to do, so I wonder if anybody bothers?

the ones that i have to seem to be "split open" for the most part, leaving the reddish husk and not the black seed.  i suppose they probably sell them that way?

#16 B Edulis

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 06:07 AM

Jean George has a recipe in his cookbook calling for a crust of Szechuan, when I went shopping for it I found "Dried Bunge Pricklyash." Which I was assured was the same. It looks the same. It was good!

#17 tommy

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 06:10 AM

"Dried Bunge Pricklyash."

good, maybe.  but can you say that 5 times fast?

#18 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 07:07 AM

OK - so guess where we're going tonight? If you want to join us, see you at China 46 around 7:30. (this message will be deleted after dinner)

crap, i'm at home but i just had a sandwich.  maybe i'll purge and see you there. that would make 3 nights in a row.  i think they are growing sick of me.  :smile:

I hope you didn't show, Jason changed his mind half-way there and we went to Saigon Republic in Englewood.  :sad: But the food was very good. :smile: We had the steamed dumplings for the first time. They are served with a bean sprout salad and are excellent. If you order them fried they are served just like the spring rolls (lettuce, herbs, pickled veg for garnish). Get them steamed. We had the chicken, but they also have shrimp and veggie dumplings.

Also, I had the special, steamed tilapia. This was amazing, in a soy/ginger broth with highly seasoned noodles and asian greens. Really good. Has anyone on besides us and jhlurie tried this place yet?

#19 Miss J

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:30 AM

I've just been reading about that 'numbing' quality in Fushia Dunlop's Sichuan cookery book. She recommends a supplier in the UK who can get good quality Sichuan peppercorns that exhibit their famous 'tingle' - apparently an enormous proportion of the ones we get in the West are so inferior they don't have it. (Sorry, she doesn't say anything about US suppliers - I expect we'll have to wait for the North American edition to come out for that.)

I'm really glad to have them, because now I can try her recipe for Strange Flavour Chicken, which actually sounds a lot more delicious than its name would suggest. :smile:

And yes, before anyone asks I am in fact on a crusade to get everyone to check out that cookbook!

Miss J

#20 Jinmyo

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:31 AM

Does it have purty pitchers, Miss J?
"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

#21 tommy

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:33 AM

She recommends a supplier in the UK who can get good quality Sichuan peppercorns that exhibit their famous 'tingle' - apparently an enormous proportion of the ones we get in the West are so inferior they don't have it. (Sorry, she doesn't say anything about US suppliers - I expect we'll have to wait for the North American edition to come out for that.)

cecil, the owner of chia 46 and the guy who gave these 2 me, explained that when they first got a hold of these things, they weren't very strong.  then they found a different supplier and they were super strong.  so what you say makes sense.  it seems they can have different levels.

#22 mamster

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:40 AM

A few years ago I met Jeffrey Steingarten and he made some comment about how you've never tasted real szechuan peppercorns until you've had the ones imported from sichuan by this particular Chinatown chef.  I didn't really know what he was talking about, but I guess he was serious, because it seems unlikely that I'd never hit szechuan peppercorns before GSI, but clearly szechuan peppercorns had never hit me.

I think I'll go buy a bag and experiment.
Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"
Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

#23 Adam_Balic

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:43 AM

Ah, all so clear now. I will have to try the experiment again. Miss J do you have the name of the UK supplier?

#24 stefanyb

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:52 AM

I have had a dish at Grand Sichuan International (24th street)that was recommended to me by the server, Jennifer(who just returned to Maylaysia) called something like Shrimp in black pepper sauce- I'm not sure because I never saw it on the menu, although it just might be there.

It looked exactly like Tommy's picture only with large succulent stir-fried shrimp.  Jon's description of the taste is very close to my experience of it.  There were gobs(scientific amount) of the peppercorns in this dish.

So, anyone in NYC who is interested in trying this peppercorn, or dried flower bud or whatever, can go to GSI and ask them for this dish.

#25 B Edulis

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 08:53 AM

I'm trying mine right now and not getting much tingle at all-tho' the flavor is interesting, a little anisey or tarragonish. Mine must be old or crappy.

#26 tommy

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 09:01 AM

It looked exactly like Tommy's picture only with large succulent stir-fried shrimp.  Jon's description of the taste is very close to my experience of it.  There were gobs(scientific amount) of the peppercorns in this dish.

i would suggest that maybe all of those gobs weren't these buds.  it must have been mixed with gobs of other stuff as well, unless they were old crappy like b edulis'.

#27 Miss J

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 09:41 AM

Jinmyo - the book does indeed have some luvverly pics. There's a great one of a dish called something really innocuous like "Boiled Beef Slices," which is actually an enormous tureen of beef slices in broth that's absolutely steeped in Facing Heaven Chiles, crushed Sichuan peppercorns, crushed red chiles and other yummy hot things. I'm planning on making it for myself one cold day when my spice-cautious boyfriend is out of town.  :smile:

Here's her ma po do fu recipe from a BBC website, if you'd like an idea of what her writing & recipes are like. (I've made this one, and I think it's very good.)

Adam - the supplier she suggests is the Cool Chile Company, which has very helpfully just launched its online shop. They mostly supply Mexican chiles, but they also offer good Sichuan peppercorns and Facing Heaven Chiles. They also have stalls at both Borough and Portobello markets, where they offer quite a nice black bean chile. And their chipotle ketchup is pretty nice, too - I won't eat grilled cheese without it now. :smile:

Miss J

#28 jhlurie

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 10:56 AM

Ah.  So at last we get to the heart of the mystery of the Sichuan Peppercorn (is it just me, or does that sound like the title of an old Perry Mason book?).  We've all had different quality peppercorns!

It made absolutely no sense to me that I've never had this before.  Now it's clear that I could have... and just not had high quality ones.  The sensation was very clear--VERY unmistakable.
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#29 stefanyb

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 12:24 PM

i would suggest that maybe all of those gobs weren't these buds.  it must have been mixed with gobs of other stuff as well, unless they were old crappy like b edulis'.

I would suggest that they were in this dish.  Gobs of them, so there. :angry:

Whether they were the good ones or not i cannot testify but my lips are still burning. :wow:

#30 jhlurie

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Posted 25 April 2002 - 05:35 PM

Jinmyo - the book does indeed have some luvverly pics. There's a great one of a dish called something really innocuous like "Boiled Beef Slices," which is actually an enormous tureen of beef slices in broth that's absolutely steeped in Facing Heaven Chiles, crushed Sichuan peppercorns, crushed red chiles and other yummy hot things. I'm planning on making it for myself one cold day when my spice-cautious boyfriend is out of town.  :smile:

You know, it's funny.  I'm a lover of spicy food.  But my opinion of the Sichuan Peppercorns so far seems to suggest that I'm going to like the sensation that they give much better without the addition of red chiles.  The ginger I had accompanying my one experience was much more UNUSUAL.
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"





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