Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sichuan (Schezuan) Pepper aka Prickly Ash

This pepper is not actually a member the pepper family. It has a unique aroma and flavor that is neither hot nor pungent; rather it has lemony flavor and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth that enhances chilies usually used with it. Only the outer husks are used; the shiny black seeds are discarded as they have a hard gritty sand-like texture. Husks are stemmed then toasted before mortared or ground then added to the dish just before serving.

Sichuan pepper are one of the traditional ingredients in the Chinese spice mixture five-spice powder and also Japanese  shichimi togarashi, a seven ingredient seasoning often found as a shaker on the condiment tray of your Asian noodle shop. Shichimi togarashi is made typically with equal parts each of ground red chiles and ground sansho (berries of the prickly ash tree related to Sichuan pepper) plus one portion each of the following: dried orange or yuzu peel, black sesame, white sesame, ginger, and nori flakes.

Due to their lemony undertones, this pepper works well with duck, chicken and fish.

Sichuan culinary history reaches all the way back to the Ba and Shu kingdoms in the 21st to 5th centuries BC. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), a 50 volume  cookbook was published. Despite its reputation to the contrary, not all Sichuan food is red-hot. Of the eight major culinary cuisines in China, Sichuan cuisine is perhaps the most popular throughout the country and across the world.

Gong Bao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken)

This dish may well be the world's most popular Chinese dish and is a excellent show case for the Sichuan pepper flavor. It is also one of the few Chinese dishes that have largely remained authentic yet served worldwide. A blend hot, sweet and sour, this delightful chicken dish is also quick to prepare. The chicken slices easier if it is slightly frozen. Note that when the chilies are left whole, the dish is less hot than in they were broken up. For this reason, I use whole arbor chilies that are quite hot.

2 Boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into thin bite sized pieces
3 Cloves of garlic, minced finely
1 Tablespoon finely minced peeled ginger
Whites of 5 scallion, sliced on the diagonal into 1 inch lengths
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
Handful of whole dried red chilies (show courage)
1 Teaspoon toasted ground Sichuan peppers added just before serving
2/3 Cup roasted peanuts

2 Teaspoon Tamari (less salty) soy sauce
1 Teaspoon sweet rice wine or Shaoxing wine
1½ Teaspoon cornstarch
1 Teaspoon seasoned rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon water

2 Teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 Teaspoon cornstarch
1 Teaspoon Mushroom soy sauce
1 Teaspoon Tamari soy sauce
2 Teaspoon Chinkiang (Black rice vinegar) or seasoned rice vinegar
1 Teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 Teaspoon Marin
1 Tablespoon chicken stock or water
Pick out any black seeds or stems from a tablespoon of Sichuan pepper berries. Heat a small pan until hot and toast pepper berries until fragrant (30 seconds or so). Turn out into a mortar or grinder. Grind into a not too course grind. Set aside.

Prepare garlic, ginger, and scallions. Assemble the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Cut the chicken into thin bite sized pieces. Thin strips cook quickly and maintain tenderness when flash cooked in the wok. Add the marinade ingredients and stir in the chicken pieces. Let marinate 15 minutes.

Into a hot wok, add peanut oil and then toss the whole chilies until fragrant. Drain then add and stir-fry chicken for several minutes until nearly fully cooked. Now add the ginger, garlic, and spring onions and stir-fry another minute. Stir the sauce ingredient then add to wok. Continue to cook. As soon as the sauce has thickened, mix in the peanuts. Remove from heat and sprinkle with ground Sichuan peppers. Serve immediately.

Very good with plain steamed Jasmine rice.

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