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A shot of Sichuan heat

February 23, 2009|By JOAN OBRA / Fresno Bee

Anyone who has tried the dried Sichuan peppercorn knows of its effects: Chew on the cracked, brownish-red pods, and a citrus flavor floods the mouth while the tongue goes pleasantly numb.

Eat them fresh, however, and the sourness and numbness are overwhelming.

"As you swallow the saliva, it makes you want to throw up a little bit," says Toulu Thao, who toured a small Sichuan pepper plot at the University of California's Kearney Agricultural Center.

It's hardly an endorsement of the Sichuan (or Szechwan) pepper, a prized spice in the fiery dishes of China's Sichuan province and other Asian cuisines. Still, Thao's tasting will prompt curiosity among fans of hot food. For in the United States, the opportunity to taste fresh Sichuan pepper is rare; the dried spice typically is imported from countries such as China and Japan.

But that could change. At the Kearney center in Parlier, UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser Richard Molinar studies the possibility of turning backyard Sichuan pepper trees into a California crop.

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"We call it an observational trial," Molinar says. Nine years ago, he planted two Zanthoxylum armatum trees, a species of Sichuan pepper grown in Nepal. The trees came from a local Hmong family growing peppercorns for home use. "We're just watching them to see how they do."

He showed off a thorny branch studded with some green, unripe pods and the more mature reddish-brown ones. As they ripen, the pod skins crack and release black seeds. The seeds are discarded, while the hulls are dried and sold as Sichuan pepper.

Except for occasional problems with aphids, the trees are doing fine in the central San Joaquin Valley's hot climate, Molinar says. He's not sure how the plants would fare in other parts of the country. As far as he knows, the University of California is the only school that's studying Sichuan pepper as a specialty crop.

A thriving domestic supply of this spice would signal a dramatic shift. From 1968 to 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned imports due to fears that dried Sichuan pepper could carry the pathogen that causes citrus canker. This disease easily spreads among citrus trees, creating ugly lesions on their leaves and fruit.

For many years, the ban was lax. But Florida's pervasive problems with citrus canker brought attention to possible sources of the disease. In the early 2000s, enforcement of the ban made it increasingly hard to find the spice.

Now, the Agriculture Department allows imports of Sichuan peppercorns that have been heated to 140 degrees -- a treatment that kills the citrus-canker pathogen. But when it comes to live trees, the disease remains a concern.

Chinese cuisines show off ways to use the Sichuan pepper.

"In Guizhou, a hilly province in southern China bordered by four other provinces -- Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan and Guangxi -- Sichuan pepper is used a great deal (though not in the overwhelming way it often is in Sichuan)," Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid write in "Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China" (Artisan, $40).

While traveling in the outlying regions of China, they encountered seasonings such as Guizhou chili paste and "a simple pepper-salt (a roughly 3 to 1 blend of salt and ground toasted Sichuan pepper)." This blend "is often used as a seasoning and a spice rub," they write.

Of course, the most extensive use of the Sichuan pepper is in China's Sichuan province.

GUIZHOU CHILI PASTE



Makes a generous 1/2 cup
1 cup dried red chilies, stemmed
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, ground (see note)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Place the chilies in a bowl and pour the boiling water over. Weight the chilies down with a small lid or plate to keep them immersed in the water. Let soak for an hour, or until softened.

Transfer the chilies and soaking water to a food processor. Add the salt and process to a puree. Return the puree to the bowl.

Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and lower the heat to medium, then toss in the shallots and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until the shallots are translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the chili puree and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half.

Transfer to a bowl and stir in the vinegar. Let cool before transferring to a clean, dry glass jar, and tightly seal with a clean lid. Store in the refrigerator.

Note: Sichuan pepper has a distinctive taste and effect on the mouth. If you love it, feel free to increase the quantity here to 1-1/2 or 2 teaspoons. The chili paste will then have, besides chili heat, some of the tongue-numbing powers of Sichuan pepper.

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