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Szechuan Peppercorn or Not


LuckyGirl
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While we don't have much in the way of Szechuan cooking in restaurants here in Cleveland I have enjoyed wonderful Szechuan in other cities.

I adore the mouth tingling feeling, heat and light citrus notes that these non-peppercorns give to Szechuan dishes.

So, last night I had dinner at a place that boasted some Szechuan dishes on their menu and I left the place puzzled over what I had eaten and I am hoping that folks here can help me with this mystery.

The dishes we had last night were different in several ways from any other I've had where SP (Szechuan Peppercorns)were used. First of all, the level of mouth numbingness and heat was about 1/3 of what I've experienced before. Secondly, none of the dishes where SPs were used had the light citrus notes I've experienced (and greatly enjoyed)in the past but rather gave off a very forward floral almost soapy taste. I didn't observe small pieces of the outer "shell" as I have in the past rather the dishes were full of what seemed more like cracked peppercorns i.e. there was a clear "corn" vs the "shell" usually used. Finally, in addition to the strong and offensive (to me) soapy flavor there was a very strong taste of what seemed like white pepper in all of the dishes. I realize that it could have been that a lot of white pepper was used in each dish but I'm wondering if it is also related to whatever was used it the dishes and called Szechuan peppercorns.

I did some cursory looking on the internet and found that pink peppercorns and grains of paradise are sometimes used in place of SPs. I came home and smelled my jars of Szechuan peppercorns and pink peppercorns. The smell of the SPs was nothing like what we had in our dishes last night. The smell of the pink peppercorns faintly resembled the taste in our dishes but was not spot on. I have no grains of paradise to smell. I am wondering if folks have any ideas of what we may have had based on my description of the dishes being forward with white pepper flavor and much soapiness (sort of like the soapiness from cilantro but not exactly), not as mouth numbing and lacking in the citrus notes I have experienced from SPs in the past.

TIA for any help you can offer in helping me solve this mystery. This is the kind of thing that can make me nuts until I solve the mystery.

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I didn't observe small pieces of the outer "shell" as I have in the past rather the dishes were full of what seemed more like cracked peppercorns i.e. there was a clear "corn" vs the "shell" usually used. Finally, in addition to the strong and offensive (to me) soapy flavor there was a very strong taste of what seemed like white pepper in all of the dishes. I realize that it could have been that a lot of white pepper was used in each dish but I'm wondering if it is also related to whatever was used it the dishes and called Szechuan peppercorns.

Most of the flavor from the Szechuan Peppercorn is in that outer hull: when I cook with them, I remove the inner seed portion and grind the outer hull in a mortar and pestle. I don't think the final dish has anything visually recognizable as a Szechuan Peppercorn, though of course the flavor is quite distinct. I also always toast them, which greatly increases their intensity and changes the flavor a bit as well, so it's possible that step was omitted where you had them. Finally, it's quite a lot of work to separate out that center hard nub, so if the restaurant took the lazy route and used the whole thing they were using a much smaller percentage of the flavorful part of the peppercorn. I don't recall the center nub having much flavor to speak of, I doubt it accounts for your "soapy" flavor.

Regarding the white pepper: I find that nothing else out there quite has that flavor. Certainly not any of the other peppercorns of any color. I think if the dish tasted of white pepper, it's just because there was in fact a lot of white pepper in there.

Chris Hennes
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chennes@egullet.org

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I've had an awful lot of "Szechuan" restaurant dishes -- even in otherwise pretty good places -- that clearly hadn't had even a single Szechuan peppercorn so much as waved over them. I suspect that some places think that the numbing will weird out the average American, and they might be right.

John Rosevear

"Brown food tastes better." - Chris Schlesinger

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I also attended this dinner with LuckyGirl. I'm not sure who first mentioned it, but the flavor of white pepper was the overwhelming spice in our dishes. That being said, there was definitely some lip numbing going on as well. Is there some other spice that could cause that level of numbness to occur? Not having had the experience of true szechuan peppercorns in a dish before, I have no other bar with which to compare it, but I also thought the numbing effect was about a 4 out of 10. I don't know if the chef held back because of our non-Asian-ness or if, as was suggested, a less grade of peppercorn was used.

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I've had an awful lot of "Szechuan" restaurant dishes -- even in otherwise pretty good places -- that clearly hadn't had even a single Szechuan peppercorn so much as waved over them. I suspect that some places think that the numbing will weird out the average American, and they might be right.

Of course, not all Szechuan cuisine has Szechuan peppercorns in it, and it's not always the dominant taste even when it is present. However, it sounds from tino27 and LuckyGirl that the dish was advertised as featuring Szechuan peppercorns, so it's fair to expect them to be dominant.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Simply sounds like to me that they just didn't use very many peppercorns in the dish. Lip numbing affect aside the use of a lot of them would most definitely come through in flavor and it doesn't take a lot of them get your face numb. I've cooked with them plenty of times and it sure never took a lot to overwhelm a dish. I've also found that toasting and grinding them gets better coverage and higher intensity of the peppercorn flavor and that telltale mouth numbing affect.

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Old SPs could explain the not very intense numbing effect but it wouldn't explain the strange taste that all the dishes had where "SPs" were used unless when SPs get old they go rancid and turn the nice delicate citrusiness to a overpowering soapiness (I actually wondered about that).

I've been thinking about this mystery all afternoon. As I thought back on the dinner it seems to me that perhaps one of the first dishes we had, Ma La Noodles, may have had some discernable SP "skin", i.e. what is normally used, though the rest of the dishes I recall having more of what was like craked peppercorns. I'm wondering if one were to use (assuming you could get them) the whole SP as opposed to the skin or shell that is usually used if it would accout for this overwhelming off/soapy taste.

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I didn't observe small pieces of the outer "shell" as I have in the past rather the dishes were full of what seemed more like cracked peppercorns i.e. there was a clear "corn" vs the "shell" usually used. Finally, in addition to the strong and offensive (to me) soapy flavor there was a very strong taste of what seemed like white pepper in all of the dishes. I realize that it could have been that a lot of white pepper was used in each dish but I'm wondering if it is also related to whatever was used it the dishes and called Szechuan peppercorns.

Most of the flavor from the Szechuan Peppercorn is in that outer hull: when I cook with them, I remove the inner seed portion and grind the outer hull in a mortar and pestle. I don't think the final dish has anything visually recognizable as a Szechuan Peppercorn, though of course the flavor is quite distinct. I also always toast them, which greatly increases their intensity and changes the flavor a bit as well, so it's possible that step was omitted where you had them. Finally, it's quite a lot of work to separate out that center hard nub, so if the restaurant took the lazy route and used the whole thing they were using a much smaller percentage of the flavorful part of the peppercorn. I don't recall the center nub having much flavor to speak of, I doubt it accounts for your "soapy" flavor.

Regarding the white pepper: I find that nothing else out there quite has that flavor. Certainly not any of the other peppercorns of any color. I think if the dish tasted of white pepper, it's just because there was in fact a lot of white pepper in there.

Intersteing observations and thoughts. Thank you.

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