The other day we came home to a care package from a dear buddy who’s been traipsing through distant Chinese cities. We sliced through the wrinkled, brown-bag wrapping. Three small plastic baggies of nubby brown husks and fine orange powder fell to the kitchen counter.
The stash was mostly whole, unadulterated and, presumably, illegal Sichuan peppercorns. Let us explain, officer!
Yes, sichuan pepper became illegal the same year as LSD – back in 1968, the FDA banned it because of fears it would infect our citrus with a rare canker disease. That ban was lifted because the stuff imported to the U.S. is now treated with a blast of bacteria-hating 160-degrees heat.
Not this stuff: there were no signs that the spices we were holding had ever been near a customs officer, let alone a sterilization blaster. Kitchen contraband. Score!
So what exactly are Sichuan peppercorns? Funny thing is, they are not related to black pepper or hot chilies at all. The spice is actually the outer seed pod of a tiny low-hanging fruit that Chinese and Tibetan cooks have been working with for centuries. Known for a mild and anesthetic heat that makes your mouth numb in large enough quantities, the stuff powers hot pots and sizzling woks. Even though the spicy cuisine that gives these little balls their name is synanomous with “searing pain,” don’t expect Sichuan peppercorns to spice up your cooking. Prepare for the opposite, in fact.
Sichuan pepper numbs your buds. Think the gummy numbness of high-powered cocaine rubbed sloppily on your teeth and lips.
Throughout the week, we’ve experimented with the best way to harness this weird fruit. We cracked it raw on salad and brussels sprouts. We threw it into sauerkraut. And toasted its dust for hot nuts. But far and away the best way to cook up with this shit is to purely infuse your oil. The first thing we learned is that the citrusy, perfume it gives off only comes out in food if you toast Sichuan peppercorns. Here’s a play by play of how to get numb.
4 Tbs. Sichuan peppercorns
4 Tbs. grapeseed or canola oil
fine mesh strainer or coffee filter
Place the whole peppercorns in a saute pan on medium-high heat. Once you smoke, lower to medium and toss every minute for about 5 minutes. Do not burn. Once fragrant and well toastes, remove from heat and rest for a few minutes.
Dump peppercorns into a mortar and pestle and pulverize for one minute, until just coarser than a dust. If chopping by hand, set peppercorns on a cutting board and chop well.
Put the fine peppercorn dust back into the pan, return to a medium heat and drizzle in the oil. Let cook for another 3 minutes or until you see tiny bubbles where the oil is frying the pepper. Remove from heat and let sit 5 minutes to fully steep.
Place snugly a coffee grinder into the lip of a small bowl or jar and slowly scrape out pepper oil into the filter. It should slowly drip a mostly clear liquid, catching the pepper grounds.
Use 2-3 tablespoons of this frying oil in recipes in place of normal olive oil.
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