Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sichuan Peppercorn Salt

Sichuan Peppercorns and Salt
Sichuan peppercorns are actually berries that come from the prickly ash species (Zanthoxylum simulans), a type of Asian citrus tree. They are not peppers, nor do they have a spicy heat level in the same way as a capsicum pepper. Instead, these berries are full of a chemical mixture consisting of alkamides, alkaloids, flavonoids, lingnoids, essential oils, and tannins that together produce not a spicy sensation on the tongue but a numbing sensation. Even a small taste of these berries can trigger this response. Because Sichuan peppercorns anesthetize the tongue, they are often added to very spicy food to ease the burn and are mistakenly thought to be producing the heat in the dish rather than easing the effects of the heat.

Sichuan peppercorns are commonly used in dishes from Sichuan and Hunan, the colder more Northern regions of China where the food can be very heavy and complex. Interestingly, the importation of Sichuan peppercorns into the US was banned in the late 1960s because they were found to carry a bacteria that threatened Florida's orange groves. While illegal importation continued on the black market, it was not until 2005 that US ports were legally allowed to trade in the spice once again. Therefore, use of this spice in America has grown by leaps and bounds just in the past decade. 

Sichuan peppercorns are an important component in the famous Chinese Five Spice Powder. This powder is made from equal parts Ground Cinnamon (Chinese Cassia variety), Ground Cloves, Star Anise, Fennel Seed (tasted and ground), and Sichuan Peppercorns (toasted and ground)--note, Ginger and/or Cardamom may also be added making it a six spice blend.

Here is a recipe for a way to add both saltiness and a numbing effect to your favorite spicy dish:

Sichuan Pepper Salt
1 Tablespoon Table Salt
1 1/2 Teaspoons Sichuan Peppercorns (order at The Spice House)

In a dry frying pan, place the salt and the Sichuan peppercorns. Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook for about 7-8 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. You will know it is time to remove the pan from the heat when you start to smell an aroma from the peppercorns. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep shaking the salt/pepper mixture frequently for 3-4 minutes. Remove the mixture from the pan and cool. When cool, grind the mixture in a spice grinder. You can store the salt in a sealed container for several month.

Ground Sichuan Peppercorn Salt 

Spicy Sichuan Nuts

2 Teaspoons Vegetable Oil
1 Cup Nuts (almonds, peanuts, pecans, or any you prefer)
2 Teaspoons Sichuan Pepper Salt (recipe above)
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper (or more to taste)

Place the oil in a frying pan with the nuts. Set over a medium-high heat. Heat for 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. Sprinkle the Sichuan Pepper Salt and the cayenne pepper over there nuts. Shake vigorously to distribute the spices evenly. Heat for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. 

Spicy Sichuan Nuts

  • Bill Briwa, The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking for the Great Courses (USA: 2013)
  • Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York, 2002)
  • Gary Paul Nabhan, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey (California: 2014)

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