The Curious Case of the Szechuan Peppercorn

One of the strangest culinary experiences I’ve ever had was more than a decade ago, when our friend from Szechuan, Guonan, invited us over for Szechuan hot pot.

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Among the more unusual items on the condiment plate that evening as we sat on the floor around a bubbling pot on the coffee table of her Marina del Rey apartment, gazing out at the twinkling lights of the boats in the harbor, was duck tongues. Our host was ecstatic — these  were a rarely seen delicacy in the states, and she had a king’s ransom worth. Game for just about anything, I stirred a couple of the paper clip-sized items into my bowl of broth and dug in. The mouthfeel extended the paper clip analogy, as one might’ve been forgiven for thinking they’d been slipped a few plastic document fasteners with some gristle attached. My wife and I looked at one another, dismayed, and after our attempts at chewing through the things failed, discreetly reached for our napkins.

“You don’t like them?” Guonan frowned, picking up on our grimaces.

Still, the duck tongues were not the most exotic thing I put in my mouth that night. That distinction would have to go to the Szechuan peppercorns Guonan had just brought back from China.

Whether out of culinary bravado or in an attempt to wipe away the lingering memory of the duck tongues I cannot recall, but I sprinkled the peppercorns liberally over my soup. They were peppercorns, after all, how strong could they be? I was not prepared for what was about to unfold inside my mouth.

While the duck tongues has resembled office supplies more than food, this was something completely new! The taste was indeed peppery, but it was the sensation that followed which was especially remarkable. My mouth began to tingle as if by some combination of chili and novocaine. I imagined the roof of my mouth glowing a neon pink, and it felt like my tongue was sweating. It was at once unsettling and exhilarating — almost making up for the duck tongues. Almost.

After that first experience, it had been awhile since I’d encountered the peppercorns. (They were actually illegal in the United States until a few years back!) My mom got me a jar of Penzey’s Szechuan peppercorns at some point a few years back, but I had no idea what to do with them.

Then, out of the blue at the beginning of 2013, two consecutive issues of my favorite cooking magazine, Saveur, featured Szechuan peppercorns prominently. The first, #29 in their annual January Saveur 100 issue of key ingredients, dishes, people and places, was something called Huang Fei Hong Spicy Peanuts, a snack food filled with dried chiles and Szechuan peppercorns. Living adjacent to a large city with one of the largest Chinese communities in the U.S., I had no trouble tracking down a package. And another. And another. In short, we’re addicted. The tingly fiery combo of peppercorns and chiles is nothing short of intoxicating.

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The tingly fiery sensation was explored in some depth two issues later in the March edition, in an article on Chengdu, capital of the Szechuan province. As it turns out, the region has a name for that interplay of tingly and spicy — ma la, the “ma” being the citric, numbing sensation of the peppercorns and the “la” its partner, the spicy fire of dried chiles. Together, beautiful music (even if it does take a bit of getting used to).

A sidebar in the article went on to explain the pins-and-needles effect of Szechuan peppercorns — not actually related to pepper at all but rather the tiny dried fruit of a tree in the citrus family — in greater detail. Turns out the phenomenon is triggered by compounds known as sanshools, which stimulate nerves normally only activated by touch and cold rather than food. The result is a sensation not unlike the feeling of novocaine when you’re at the dentist. Ironically, the tingling feeling increases our sensitivity to other flavors — such as the “la” of chiles.

Enough science, let’s eat! I became inspired for a brief Szechuan interlude to our usual fare, and for a week or so we ate a lot of the stuff. As usual, I found my favorite thing to be not one of the recipes provided by the article, but my own riff on what they were doing. So here, with a broad tip of the hat to Saveur for inspiration, is my own quick and easy take on a classic Szechuan dish. Enjoy!

*    *    *

Szechuan pork belly with scallions
serves 4

16 oz. pork belly, sliced into 1/4-inch thick strips and lightly salted
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. Chinese red chile bean paste
1 tsp. red chile oil
1 tsp. Szechuan peppercorns
12 green onions, each cut into 2-inch lengths (about 3-4 per onion)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add your pork belly slices, tossing frequently, until golden and beginning to crisp up. Remove from heat and drain off any fat.

Return pan to medium heat, add white wine, sugar and soy sauce, bring to a simmer and cook until liquid is reduced to a thickish glaze (about 20 – 30 minutes). Add remaining ingredients plus 1/4 cup of water. Turn heat to high and toss frequently until the sauce reduces again to a glaze and everything is incorporated.

Divide among 4 plates. Serve with steamed white rice.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thefatcook
    Apr 25, 2013 @ 22:25:30

    I go to Penzey’s 2x/year to stock up.

    Reply

  2. pal-O
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 17:20:42

    Saveur is one of my monthly pleasures for many years now thanks to some guy in SoCal who unfortunately I rarely get to see anymore . . . 8^(

    Reply

  3. Jessamine in PDX
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 00:10:06

    That pork belly sounds awesome! Here’s a fun story for you — about 7 years there was an issue with Szechuan peppercorns in Portland — not sure if it was related to the local company importing them or what. But I guess some type of bacterial disease was posing a risk to the local trees. My husband, being a chef, actually had people from the Dept of Agriculture storm the kitchen doors in Hazmat suits demanding his peppercorns. Crazy stuff! Also duck tongues — braise ’em down and they make great tacos! =)

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Apr 28, 2013 @ 13:48:40

      I think that WAS the issue with the peppercorns and was why they were illegal — something about disease. Not sure why they’re okay now. That’s a great story! And if I ever get the cajones up to try duck tongues again, I’ll take your advice. 😉

      Reply

  4. Michelle
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 03:14:15

    I adore the “ma” of Szechuan peppercorns. And, thank goodness one can buy them again in the US. Duck tongues? Not so much. Office supplies, indeed. Chewy with that plastic-y thing at the back. Ugh. (Though Steve, of course, will argue their merits.)

    Reply

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