Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Spice Cabinet: Szechuan Peppercorns

Szechuan peppercorns are the newest addition to my spice cabinet. They're not actually peppercorns, but the dried fruits of a plant in the citrus family. They are only grown and harvested in Asia, and up until very recently, it was illegal to import Szechuan peppercorns into the United States due to concern about the spread of citrus canker disease. But in 2005 the ban was modifed to allow for the import of heat-treated peppercorns, and it has since become much easier to acquire them. (Even during the time of the ban they were accessible, if you knew who to ask...)

Szechuan peppercorns have an odd kind of citrusy flavor. They're sort of spicy, but in an odd fashion - they are high in a chemical that produces a sort of anaesthetic or numbing effect on the tongue. They're really unlike anything else. As you would guess from the name, they are an essential ingredient in the cooking of the Szechuan region in China. They are also a traditional ingredient in Chinese Five Spice Powder (a combination of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns) although white pepper is frequently substituted in prepared spice mixes in the US.

Want to know more? This site contains all the information you could possibly want, including detailed etymology. If you're just interested in the general overview, click on "discussion" in the top nav bar.

Even though they are now legal for import and sale, they're still not widely available. So when I managed to get a small supply* recently, I immediately set out to find things to make with them. I've been cooking my way through the Quick Food book that I wrote about here a while ago, and it contained a quick and easy recipe for Szechuan Chicken that I just had to try.

I have to say that it turned out absolutely wonderfully. Now, the numb sensation on your tongue is decidedly odd, and I haven't decided if that's going to turn me off of using Szechuan peppercorns in my cooking. But the overall effect was really quite tasty. I love five spice powder, and was worried that 1/4 tsp wouldn't be enough, but it was perfect - noticeable without being overwhelming. The only downside I should note is that the leftovers I've been eating for the past couple days are not nearly as tasty as the original for some reason, so I recommend eating it all up the night you make it!

Szechuan Chicken
(Recipe adapted from Quick Food)

1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/4 tsp five spice powder
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp julienned fresh ginger
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp Chinese chili sauce with garlic (recipe calls for chili bean paste - toban jian - but I didn't have any and this is what I subsituted)
2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1 tbsp vermouth or rice wine
1/2 c water

Cut the chicken thighs in half. Sprinkle with five spice powder. Heat oil in a large skillet until very hot. Add chicken and cook 2 minutes per side until browned. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

Add ginger to pan and saute briefly, about 30 seconds. Add the peppercorns and chili sauce, and stir once or twice. Add the soy sauce, vermouth and water, and stir to deglaze the pan and collect up any browned bits from the bottom.

Add chicken pieces back to the pan and simmer over low heat, uncovered, for about 15-20 minutes or until done. Turn the chicken over periodically to coat with the sauce. The long uncovered cooking time will reduce and thicken the sauce. Serve on top of cooked rice - we especially like short grain/ sushi style rice in our house.

Serves 4.

* I got my small stash from Durham's Tracklements - they keep them on hand for their Thai cured salmon and will sell you some. For those who don't live in Ann Arbor, you can mail order from a number of places, including Penzey's.


Anonymous said...

Asian grocery stores commonly carry them.

Anonymous said...

chefscatalog (dotcom) has a large jar in their sale section for $5.