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Sichuan Peppercorn


jhlurie
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The article on Szechuan Peppercorns that appeared in the NYTimes back in February mentioned that the heat treatment "changes their quality and character." It also mentioned that the Agriculture Dept. has only 130 inspectors that deal with smuggling and improper importation. The Dept. spokesperson admitted they didn't visit everyone they could.

It's interesting that you can't find them in the bay area.

In a Chicago Tribune article, Fuchsia Dunlop reported that she experimented with this heat treatment at home and found that the peppercorns still "worked", though there was a "slight" loss of aroma and intensity. It might be a fair tradeoff if you can get freshly imported heat-treated peppercorns versus "intact" stock that's been sitting around for a year.

Actually, I said "San Francisco", not "Bay Area". The Feds don't have a lot of imagination, and SF Chinatown was a pretty obvious target, especially considering the fact that they could cover so many markets in a small area. There were reports of them being sold openly at Whole Foods long after they disappeared from Chinatown shelves. In terms of bringing them in yourself, I imagine that the ruling is sufficiently obscure that you could plead ignorance if you got caught (not like me getting hit with a $50 fine for bringing in a piece of Jinhua ham from China).

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hello everyone. I am new around here, and have read this Sichuan Peppercorn thread with interest. I am a native New Yorker, so I think I know all about Chinese food (LOL), but I have never tried making Sichuan food in my own kitchen until recently. This is largely for medical reasons, as I have developed a health problem that requires me to live totally salt-free. [Except for a once-a-year splurge at Wu Liang Ye or Grand Sichuan!] Therefore, I have to come up with homemade substitutes for many Chinese ingredients, with an occasional tiny pinch of the "real stuff" to recreate the taste. It sounds insane, but I enjoy the challenge.

I recently started my Sichuan adventures with Fuschia Dunlop's book. I went down to Chinatown yesterday to buy ingredients, but left largely frustrated, as the stores I visited (KMF et al) don't seem to have many Sichuan ingredients. My search for the elusive peppercorns brought me to this site, and I just ordered some from CMC. (Thanks so much for the tip!) But I've also been utterly unable to find those famous "facing-heaven" peppers. Any idea where I might be able to buy them?

Thanks so much for your help.

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But I've also been utterly unable to find those famous "facing-heaven" peppers.

What are those?

Welcome to eGullet!

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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But I've also been utterly unable to find those famous "facing-heaven" peppers.

What are those?

Welcome to eGullet!

From the Dunlop book:

Sun-dried chilies are indispensable in many Sichuanese dishes. Several varieties can be found in the region's markets. In the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, the most common type is the "facing-heaven" chile (chao tian jiao), a short, plump, lustrously red chile that is moderately hot and very fragrant (the chiles grow upward, hence their name).

There is a nice color picture of them also in the book.

Google came up with a surprising dearth of links, less than a page. Good news is that it is a dried chile so it should be available somewhere on the planet, and peppers are currently unrestricted for import to the US.

PJ

PS Welcome, bivs99.

"Epater les bourgeois."

--Lester Bangs via Bruce Sterling

(Dori Bangs)

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Thanks for the welcome. As to the peppers, I searched online for them too, and the only sources I found were in the UK! This seems strange to me, given the much larger Chinese immigrant population in the US. Perhaps US Chinese call the peppers by some other name. In the meantime, I am going to keep looking. It seems weird that I'd have to order this sort of thing from England, when it must be out there somewhere--just have to figure out where to look.

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Thanks for the welcome.  As to the peppers, I searched online for them too, and the only sources I found were in the UK!  This seems strange to me, given the much larger Chinese immigrant population in the US.  Perhaps US Chinese call the peppers by some other name.  In the meantime, I am going to keep looking.  It seems weird that I'd have to order this sort of thing from England, when it must be out there somewhere--just have to figure out where to look.

I think I've seen what you are looking for in SF Chinatown markets, but have no idea what thet are called locally. "Facing heaven" chiles are usually classified as Mirasol ("admiring the sun") varieties. A good substitute might be Guajillo chiles from a Mexican market. For reference, the heat is approximately that of a young Jalapeno.

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seems strange to me, given the much larger Chinese immigrant population in the US. Perhaps US Chinese call the peppers by some other name. In the meantime, I am going to keep looking.

The Chinese in the US were predominantly Cantonese. That's changed within the past 2 decades, as more people from Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu, Fukien, etc. left China. Wild guess, but nowadays, I'd guess half the Chinese in the US are Cantonese in origin.

But I've never met a Sichuanese person in the US, although I imagine the Sichuanese restaurants in the NYC & northern NJ areas to be run by Sichuanese.

This makes me curious about Sichuanese emigration patterns.

It's something I know absolutely nothing about.

It's entirely possible there's a large immigrant Sichuanese population in London or somewhere.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Re facing heaven chillies

Actually the chillies are much less of a problem than the Sichuan pepper, for which there is no real substitute (although all the dishes will work and taste good without it, they will just lack that zingy Sichuan pepper feeling). Although the facing heaven are the most common chilli used in Chengdu cooking, other chillies are used in the region, eg smaller, thinner pointy chillies which are popular in Chongqing. The main thing is to choose a type which will give a good red colour and yield a heat you find palatable. Just experiment with whatever is available in your local spice shops. No need to be too dogmatic about this one.

Incidentally, these days I am mostly using a ground Korean chilli to make my chilli oil (I buy it in London). It is quite mild and gives a spectacular ruby colour to the oil, so you can use the oil in generous quantities without blowing anyones head off. It is more like the Sichuanese two golden strips chilli than the facing heaven, i.e. milder, redder.

best wishes

Fuchsia Dunlop

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Fuchsia Dunlop (if indeed it is you), we are honoured to see you amongst us. Your "Land of Plenty" is a masterpiece that will be a reference book in my kitchen. Congratulations.

As to Szechuan folk in North America, before 1976, I have never met one and I have been here since 1949/1950. I dare say that before 1970 the vast majority of Chinese in North America were Cantonese, more specifically Toyshanese. It wasn't until after the relaxation of Canadian and American immigration laws in the late sixties that we saw more and more people from other parts of China, Taiwan, etc. on these shores.

Szechuan peppercorns (xantho xylum?) to me is a great flavouring agent. I really don't find it "numbing" or "hot", just a nice spicey flavour. I can't believe the difficulties our American friends are having in accessing them. No use obsessing on them, they are nice to have if you have them to give a dish that uniquely "Szechuan" taste, but they are not absolutely, imperatively essential to any dish.

I may be all wet, but I think that Szechuan cookery became the rage after the Nixon visit during the days of pingpong diplomacy, when westerners were given some access to China. Among the things that were "discovered" were acupuncture, tai ch'i and Szechuan cooking. The latter fit perfectly with the mistaken impression by mainstream America that all "exotic" foods, whether from mexico, Spain or China had to be spicey and hot. ( I guess the artistry and nuance of Cantonese cuisine was lost on many :raz: )

During that era of rediscovering China, most visitors were given lavish banquets as they travelled on their official rounds. A lot of people knew about Szechuan cooking before the period, of course, but maybe that was the first encounter for many. I remember reading a few of the "travelogue "articles by a correspondent whose name escapes me complaining of the severe lacks in the Chinese countryside. His biggest complaints at the time were the dearth of toilet tissue and the scorching heat of some of the cuisines he encountered.

Now that we have a bona fide expert on board, maybe Fuchsia could answer a question that I Have been seeking an answer to for years. It's been said that Szechuan and Hunan cooking are fraternal twins, both born of the same general region, but Hunan cooking has been elevated to a more "formal" status, to be served at formal banquets and other official functions. Also, even if the dish was de facto Szechuan in appearance and taste, it would be called a Hunan dish by the chef, respecting the formality of the situation. Anyone hear of such a theory?

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Szechuan peppercorns (xantho xylum?) to me is a great flavouring agent. I really don't find it "numbing" or "hot", just a nice spicey flavour. I can't believe the difficulties our American friends are having in accessing them. No use obsessing on them, they are nice to have if you have them to give a dish that uniquely "Szechuan" taste, but they are not absolutely, imperatively essential to any dish.

I never did either, because I always bought old stale bags at stores frequented by mostly by southern Chinese and SE Asians. Hot? numbing? these people are wusses, I thought to myself.

Once I got my hands on some good stuff, it was a world of difference. Chewing on a raw one rendered my tongue numb for a good 5 minutes. They were also much more fragrant then I was used to. Even roasted and sprinkled on top of dishes they add some zing, besides the characteristic flavor. It shouldn't stop you from cooking Sichuan food, but in all seriousness, I can't imagine something like ma po doufu without it.

regards,

trillium

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There's a significant Taiwanese population in New York, too. And a lot of people left Hong Kong.

Taiwanese, really?

That's interesting.

Not entirely suprising though.

An overwhelming majority of those that left Hong Kong are likely to be Cantonese.

Of course, now that has me wondering what is the percentage of Chinese in Hong Kong who are not of Cantonese extraction.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Actually the chillies are much less of a problem than the Sichuan pepper, for which there is no real substitute (although all the dishes will work and taste good without it, they will just lack that zingy Sichuan pepper feeling).

It's good to see you here again, Fuchsia, and I think we'd all love to see you get that post count up! :laugh:

In the Chicago Tribune article about the new heat-treated peppercorns approved by US authorities, they quoted you as saying (by phone) that you had tried the heat treatment at home and found that the peppercorns still "worked", though there was a "slight" loss of aroma and intensity. Was that a fair characterization of your reaction, and do you have any further comments on the "approved" peppercorns in comparison to nasty ones?

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Herbacidal: Hong Kong has always had a reputation as a catch basin for all who "escape" from something. When the Brits wrested it from China after the first Opium War, it was no more than a pirates' nest and a den of opium traffickers. That reputation carried on into modern times, well past the Communist revolution in 1949. One of the main reasons why HK became such a "gung ho" city was because of the influx of a large number of wealthy and influential mainlanders displaced by the Communists. Of course the influx of mainlanders, not only from Guangdong, but from all of China continued up to the "repatriation". Now HK is the desired destination for all and sundry functionaries, politicos, influential people, etc.

So back to your question about the demographic makeup of HK, I would say that people born and bred in Guangdong (Cantonese) are slowly seeing their preponderance dwindle. To be sure, they represent the majority still, but who really cares, as anyone who is fortunate enough to gain access to HK soon becomes a Hong Konger. And, we are all Han.

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As to Szechuan folk in North America, before 1976, I have never met one and I have been here since 1949/1950. I dare say that before 1970 the vast majority of Chinese in North America were Cantonese, more specifically Toyshanese. It wasn't until after the relaxation of Canadian and American immigration laws in the late sixties that we saw more and more people from other parts of China, Taiwan, etc. on these shores.

Ben, I'm younger than you, but my memory of the immigration and food patterns is similar. I've lived in NYC all my life, and I remember when Sichuan restaurants first arrived in the 70's--the food was seen as exotic, and so very hot. I remember going to places in Chinatown like Say Eng Look (also known as 456) to eat what we called Szechuan food then, but it's funny--my memory of the dishes (hot and sour soup, shrimp with seaweed, lion's head, etc.) doesn't square with what I know now about Sichuan food. Then when "Szechuan" became popular, it sort of got dumbed down, and everything became some kind of "Szechuan/Hunan/Canton" hybrid junk. It's only in the last few years, when places like Wu Liang Ye and Grand Sichuan arrived, that we've gotten back to "real" Sichuan food (or maybe experienced it for the first time?).

Even today, though, NYC's Chinatown is dominated by southern Chinese immigrants. The Toyshanese are the oldest, largest and most established group, and their tastes seem to dominate what is available in the stores in "central" Chinatown. You have to go a lot further east (like East Broadway or Grand Street) to find the stores frequented by the more recent immigrants. There are probably even more of them in Flushing (Queens), but I'm not at all familiar with the Flushing Chinatown.

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There's a significant Taiwanese population in New York, too. And a lot of people left Hong Kong.

Taiwanese, really?

That's my impression. There are a few Taiwanese restaurants in Flushing, and I've also met a fair number of Taiwanese people who live in the area and had Taiwanese students.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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An overwhelming majority of those that left Hong Kong are likely to be Cantonese.

Of course, now that has me wondering what is the percentage of Chinese in Hong Kong who are not of Cantonese extraction.

There's a good number of Honkongese whose roots are in Shanghai and who like to consider themselves "Shanghainese" even though they were born in HK and primarily speak Cantonese. We have friends whose daughter fits that description, and they weren't happy until she married a boy of like background.

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Herbacidal: Hong Kong has always had a reputation as a catch basin for all who "escape" from something. When the Brits wrested it from China after the first Opium War, it was no more than a pirates' nest and a den of opium traffickers. That reputation carried on into modern times, well past the Communist revolution in 1949. One of the main reasons why HK became such a "gung ho" city was because of the influx of a large number of wealthy and influential mainlanders displaced by the Communists. Of course the influx of mainlanders, not only from Guangdong, but from all of China continued up to the "repatriation". Now HK is the desired destination for all and sundry functionaries, politicos, influential people, etc.

So back to your question about the demographic makeup of HK, I would say that people born and bred in Guangdong (Cantonese) are slowly seeing their preponderance dwindle. To be sure, they represent the majority still, but who really cares, as anyone who is fortunate enough to gain access to HK soon becomes a Hong Konger. And, we are all Han.

Thanks.

While your information wasn't exactly unknown to me, it did fill in some things.

Still wondering about percentages though.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Dear bivs99, Ben Hong, Gary

Thanks so much for your kind words!

Just a quick reply as I'm on holiday in Italy and being charged extortionate rates in the only internet bar in the village!

Ben: if the Sichuan pepper you are using is 'just spicy' and not numbing, it's not really good stuff. You can't mistake the real Sichuan pepper buzz; in fact it's pretty shocking the first time you try it. It's like nothing else...

Trillium: your tongue only numb for 5 minutes?! with some of the stuff I've tried it's more like 15 or 20 (gradually diminishing)!

Gary Soup: what you had heard about Hunan/Sichuan does not really ring true. For a start, although the two cuisines are often lumped in together, and have a certain amount in common (mainly chillies, actually), they have very distinct styles. And if you look at a map you'll see the two provinces only touch a teeny teeny bit in SE Sichuan and NW Hunan, i.e. they are fairly distinct geographically. And if anything, Sichuan is the posher of the two cuisines. The Chinese are addicted to classification of everything, and in terms of cuisines there are various different systems, the most common being 'Four Great cuisines', one of which is Sichuanese. Hunanese does not get a look in unless you go instead for the 'eight great cuisines' angle, in which case Hunanese is one of them (obviously the Hunanese tend to like the 'eight great cuisines' system of classification!). So although both are very interesting, and have different strata of cuisines (street food, everyday food, banquet cooking etc), it's certainly not true that Hunanese is more prestigious than Sichuanese. Of course I'm talking from a PRC perspective : what you say may be true in the US...

And yes, Mike Lev's Chicago Trib piece was accurate: I did a test, can't remember exactly what the result was (notes are at home in London), but I oven-baked some stuff and steamed some and they were both still a bit zingy but not as much as my untreated supplies. I reckon if they start with really good stuff the end product will be OK, but obviously if they start with your average Chinese supermarket Sichuan pepper it won't be numbing either before or after.

This has turned into rather a long post after all!

best wishes

Fuchsia

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In the June 2004 Food Arts magazine,

there's a description of the new Chinese Cuisine Training Institute in HK.

It separates the cuisines very well, better than anyone I've heard or seen yet.

In describing the separate kitchens, it mentions that

one is maintained for each of China's four traditional regional cuisines---

eastern China, including Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Ningbo; the south, for Cantonese and Fujian cookery; the west, for Sichuan and Hunan; and the north, for Beijing and the Shandong region.

While this is bound to have criticisms for supporters of this or that,

I still think is a far better categorization than I've heard anywhere else.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Even today, though, NYC's Chinatown is dominated by southern Chinese immigrants. The Toyshanese are the oldest, largest and most established group, and their tastes seem to dominate what is available in the stores in "central" Chinatown. You have to go a lot further east (like East Broadway or Grand Street) to find the stores frequented by the more recent immigrants. There are probably even more of them in Flushing (Queens), but I'm not at all familiar with the Flushing Chinatown.

i think it may be more interesting/revealing to look at the patterns of immigration in los angeles' san gabriel valley--the home of, as far as i know, the largest population of expatriate chinese outside the u.s, and definitely the most varied and best chinese restaurants. it may be hard for new yorkers to accept this but new york is not ground zero for chinese food in the u.s anymore.

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i think it may be more interesting/revealing to look at the patterns of immigration in los angeles' san gabriel valley--the home of, as far as i know, the largest population of expatriate chinese outside the u.s, and definitely the most varied and best chinese restaurants.

I'm glad someone else besides me understands that "The Valley" is not part of the US.

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Even today, though, NYC's Chinatown is dominated by southern Chinese immigrants.  The Toyshanese are the oldest, largest and most established group, and their tastes seem to dominate what is available in the stores in "central" Chinatown.  You have to go a lot further east (like East Broadway or Grand Street) to find the stores frequented by the more recent immigrants.  There are probably even more of them in Flushing (Queens), but I'm not at all familiar with the Flushing Chinatown.

i think it may be more interesting/revealing to look at the patterns of immigration in los angeles' san gabriel valley--the home of, as far as i know, the largest population of expatriate chinese outside the u.s, and definitely the most varied and best chinese restaurants. it may be hard for new yorkers to accept this but new york is not ground zero for chinese food in the u.s anymore.

Right, we all know Jersey is.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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