If you’ve never heard of Sichuan peppercorns but are a curious person, read on. If you know a little bit about this obscure ingredient but would like to learn more (such as about them having been banned for import), read on. If you know all about them and would enjoy discovering the flaws in my brief exploration into the topic, read on. If none of this seems interesting, click here.
Years ago, my family was in Fremont and we found a Chinese restaurant that looked promising despite being in a strip mall. (It’s Fremont … everything is in a strip mall.) We were starving (in the privileged American sense). The first dish arrived … some noodle thing. For about five seconds we were all like, “Pretty yum!” But then frowns rippled through our ranks. “There’s something wrong with this,” my wife said. One of my daughters pushed her plate away. I had to admit, something seemed off.
The noodles tasted fine. Great, in fact … different from anything I’d had before. But something complicated was going on, something that transcended flavor. It wasn’t as dramatic as when my wife got a mouthful of cockroach at a crappy dim sum place in San Francisco; it just seemed like something was happening in my mouth that shouldn’t. It brought to mind Pop Rocks action candy, but it wasn’t quite that … this was more of a buzz than a fizz. Have you ever had a bit of subtle mouth numbness from eggplant or walnuts? It was kind of like that, I guess, but not as astringent, if that makes any sense. More than anything I was reminded of a meal I had as a kid, at the salad bar at the Red Barn, where something in the fruit salad bubbled and buzzed on my tongue, in a bad way, and my dad (who’d sampled the same thing) announced it had fermented and was not safe to eat.
My wife and both daughters wouldn’t eat any more of the noodles, but nothing else had arrived yet and I was torn. I was really enjoying the noodles despite having decided some ingredient in them had turned, and I was weighing my hunger against the possibility of being poisoned. My mom is a microbiologist and raised my brothers and me to push the envelope on questionable food. Sour milk, for example, turns out to be perfectly drinkable and won’t make you sick—you just have to plug your nose as you drink it. So I finally decided, “Screw it—I’m eating this.” (Nobody tried to stop me. I’m kind of famous in my household for rescuing perfectly edible stuff from our compost bin.)
I got through most of the plate of noodles before the waiter arrived with our next dish, and my wife questioned him. I can’t remember exactly what she said but the gist was, “Is this dish rancid or something?” The waiter wasn’t very fluent in English but said something about peppercorns, and something about ash, and assured us the dish was perfectly fine. I asked if my mouth was supposed to tingle; he smiled and said yes. My family was still dubious—I mean, what waiter would admit to spoiled food?—but I was sold, and thus got all the noodles to myself. Score!
What are Sichuan peppercorns?
I didn’t get the full story on this strange ingredient until at least a year later when I was having coffee with some bike pals after a ride. (At least) two of these guys were total foodies. One of them, T—, whose wife emigrated here from China, spoke (and later emailed) at length about the Sichuan peppercorns, what they do, what they’re called in Chinese (“ma,” spelled 麻), and what local restaurant he recommends that features them. (As described here, the Sichuan peppercorn is also known as Chinese prickly ash, Chinese pepper, rattan pepper, and mala pepper.)
So why had I never heard of these before? Well, the other friend, D—, had the answer: they were illegal for import to the US for decades. The fear was they could bring a certain citrus canker into the US and endanger our crops. D— actually know a guy who kept a personal stash, purchased from lawless importers. (Now that’s a foodie … imagine, buying your ingredients on the black market, from smugglers!) Then the ban was softened: the peppercorns could be imported after being heated in a certain way; eventually, the ban was lifted entirely. (Alas, as I learned from this video report, nobody informed the Chinese exporters that the ban had ended, so these peppercorns are still somewhat rare in the U.S.)
How would you find these peppers?
If you live in a place with a Chinatown, like NYC or San Francisco, you could surely find an open-air market where these peppercorns are sold. The video I linked to above has some pointers. But really, who among you does enough Chinese cooking to even bother? For most of us, Chinese food means either dine-in or takeout. So I did a little online searching of local places and settled on a pretty good strategy for determining if a restaurant cooks with Sichuan peppercorns: just search the online reviews for “peppercorns,” “ma,” “mala,” or (best of all) 麻. This not only ferrets out this ingredient, but helps establish the cred of the restaurant: if the reviewers know all about these peppercorns and their various names, they’re not just uncultured rubes who would praise a restaurant for its Coca-Cola.
As with taquerias (click here for details), I take it as a good sign when a restaurant serves things most native-born Americans would never eat. For me, another sign of authenticity in an ethnic restaurant is poor spelling and/or translation on their menu. Here are some website features that inspired me to try out Chendgu Style restaurant in Berkeley.
Check it out! They have both best food and good food! I get the sense that there’s some list in play here of English words that have positive associations, and thus are sprinkled around like garnish. Now check this out:
Yum, I love rice sick! Here again, there appears to be nobody on staff who is sufficiently fluent in English that this error wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb … so this is as far from Panda Express as you can get. Onward:
Can I have mine well done?
Just like Mom used to make!
Okay, I guess I should get us back on track. Here’s the first sign of the Sichuan peppercorns:
The description of that sauce strikes me as a heroic effort to communicate what this sauce is all about. It would appear that whoever came up with this didn’t grasp the subtleties of connotation here—that is, that this description is highly scientific as opposed to mouth-watering. Wikipedia more simply describes Zanthoxylum Schinifolium as mastic-leaf prickly ash, aka Sichuan pepper.
Now, you’d think somebody dining on “Dumpling In Zanthoxylum Schinifolium Etzucc Sauce” would appreciate the precise, if perhaps overly technical, description. Not necessarily. Consider this review: “Boy oh boy did we make a bad call here. We saw dumplings and wontons in some kind of sauce with 3 long and intense scientific words we couldn’t understand… We had no idea it was the mouth numbing stuff… Neither of us were fans of the smell, flavor, or the feeling.”
That reviewer would do well to heed the advice of another patron: “For westerners: ask someone in back to suggest your order...if you’re going to a Chengdu specialty place, DAMMIT, ORDER CHENGDU FOOD… And for god’s sake, please don’t get the General Tso’s chicken: that’s not a real thing...it’s only on the menu to keep the gwai-low happy.”
Another Chendgu Style reviewer wrote, “Folks, the ‘numbing’ (麻) effect is the hallmark of authentic Sichuan cuisine. I’ve visited the actual city of Chengdu in China a few times, and this Berkeley restaurant recreates the flavor very well. Your mouth is supposed to get numb. If anything, I wished the dishes had more numbing spice… Really enjoyed their Fu Qi Fei Pian. Also enjoyed their Tan-Tan Noodles made with a bonafide numbing/spicy sauce --- truth is, any other ‘Tan-Tan Noodles’ made with peanut-based sauce is like making pasta with marinara and calling it ‘pesto.’”
But does 麻 enhance the food?
Do Sichuan peppercorns actually improve Chinese food? This seems like a tricky question. After all, if a restaurant’s cooks don’t know what they’re doing, they can cause all kinds of problems by over-seasoning. Consider The Stinking Rose in San Francisco (slogan: “We season our garlic with food®” and yes, that’s actually a registered trademark there) which has really lousy food because—guess what?—putting way too much garlic in something is a great stunt for pulling in bonehead tourists but has nothing to do with good cooking. So we had to find a Chinese restaurant (and preferably more than one) that is really good and uses these peppercorns properly.
We headed over to Chengdu Style and though the ambience was strictly barebones, we did enjoy our meal. I was too busy eating to bother snapping a really good photo (as I hadn’t even contemplated blogging about this), but here’s a snapshot:
That dish in the foreground is their famous Toothpick Lamb, chock full of Sichuan peppercorns, which we all really liked. (One reviewer wrote, “I would suggest to the owners to drop the toothpicks from the ‘toothpick lamb,’ which is EXCELLENT. It’s literally a choking lawsuit waiting to happen.” I have to agree.) The Garlic Eggplant in the background didn’t have the peppercorns and was also great.
Again I (rhetorically) ask: do the peppercorns improve the food? I was surprised when I asked my family this question today. My younger daughter claims they “dominate the flavor.” My wife says “they distract.” My older daughter said (via text, since she’s off at college), “It’s a cute gimmick for a sec but it distracts from the taste. They taste like I’m being electrocuted LOL.”
Not long ago, my wife and I went to another recommended place, Wojia Hunan in Albany. To establish its cred, and because it’s fun, here are a couple of their menu items:
So … they throw the recipe right into the pot with the feet?
Luncheon meat? Like that weird rubbery Oscar Mayer stuff in the plastic package? Man, that is adventurous!
But this dish must be their real pièce de résistance:
I guess if you nibble the frog gently enough, he doesn’t realize he’s being eaten until it’s too late?
We didn’t try any of those things. But we had the Fried Glutinous Rice Balls (really tasty), the Sautéed Eggplant with String Beans (great), the Homestyle Noodles (solid), and a fish dish, I think the Boiled Fish with Rattan Pepper (delicious and numbing, but with a lot of little bones). The photo at the top of this post is from that meal; as you can see, this place is more upscale than Chengdu Style. Again, I dug the numbing business but my wife and younger daughter didn’t (though it didn’t ruin the meal for them either).
Now, it could be that we newbies are just not used to the numbing effect, right? Well, my older daughter asked one of her Chinese friends for his opinion of the peppercorns, and he replied, “My mom used to put them in soups and chickens and such when I was a kid, and I hated it. Always ruined my day when I accidentally chewed them. You can generally find them lined up on the side of a finished plate.” So it appears they’re just not for everyone.
There’s one more Chinese restaurant I really want to try for its peppercorns: Sichuan Fusion in nearby Richmond. This is the place my friend T— originally recommended. I have just discovered that its website looks eerily similar to Wojia’s —and Chengdu Style’s too, for that matter:
Does this mean they’re all the same—basically a small chain? Naw. I’ll bet they just hired the same low-end company to build their barebones, humdrum websites. I think this is a plus: these restaurants are putting their effort into the food, not their brand and “online presence.”
If I discover anything really remarkable at Sichuan Fusion, I’ll be back to post an addendum. Watch these pages!
My wife found Sichuan peppercorns at a local supermarket: