What is Szechaun or Sichuan pepper and what does it taste like? Whenever a customer asks us that we have to pause for a second as there is no easy answer. Its like describing black bean sauce, until you tried it how can you explain it to someone. Szechuan pepper or Prickly Ash Peppercorn has its own unique and pungent aroma, some people say its lemony and some say its peppery or bitter and personally I find it leaves a metallic aftertaste so you can understand how it gets difficult to explain. Most agree though that it gives a tingly sensation to the lips and tongue when eaten in large quantities and especially when eaten with hot chili. This is due to a bioactive compound in the peppercorn named Hydroxy-alpha sanshool which it has about 3% of. Even though it sounds like a chemical its 100% natural. The Chinese have been using this pepper since Adam was a lad and it is actually one of the spices that makes up the famous five spice powder. Another common use is in hotpots, it is added to the cooking stock to give a distinctive and authentic flavor to the food. The peppercorns are often used whole in Chinese cooking, sometimes lightly crushed and toasted as they don’t mind the grittiness or the mouth numbing side effects as its part of Chinese eating culture. Europeans or first time eaters on the other hand don’t really want to be chewing on crunchy peppercorns especially if they are not sure what they even are so in some restaurants including ours the peppercorns are toasted and then ground to a coarse powder in a spice grinder. This gives the flavor and the mouth numbing effect but without the crunch and not too much grit. The picture on the right is sezechuan pepper coarsely ground, you can still see some of the husks and color is retained. Even though in this close up photo it looks very coarse it is actually finer than this and less coarse than cracked black pepper. If you don’t have a spice grinder just crush them the best you can in a strong bowl that wont crack and with the back of a large serving spoon. To toast just use medium heat in a non stick fry pan and stir and turn. It will smoke a bit but you don’t want a room full of smoke so turn it down if it smokes too much. Just a wisp or two when you turn is hot enough. Open the windows if you can and after toasting let it cool completely before grinding. Commercially ground szechuan pepper is ground to a very fine powder similar to table pepper and in our experience it loses its pungency and flavor. Szechuan pepper is sometimes used in other foods like baked goods and this is really what this is most suitable for. We don’t recommend it for use in cooking meals or in hot pots.
So, now that you know what it is, but want to find out for yourself what it tastes like try a few recipes. The simplest is to make Chinese hotpot and boil up some of your favorite meats and vegetables. The good thing about a hot pot is that you can adjust on the go. If too strong just dilute with more water or just add more peppercorns if you canâ€™t taste it enough. I fell though that it is best in a stir-fry or noodle dish with chili and garlic. Once you have tried a few szechuan dishes all others seem bland in comparison. One that we do here at Panasia is Dragon Noodles. It is our most popular spicy noodle dish and has a cult following among our regulars. Over the years we have received a lot of feedback on this dish and believe we have got the right balance of chili, szechuan and other ingredients just right. I cant give away the recipe as it will get copied but I can point you in the right direction. Read below or basic ingredients.
1/3 tsp of coarse ground szechuan pepper Garlic - 1 tsp Chili (fresh and dried) up to you how hot 1/2 tsp sesame oil (the good stuff - 100% pure not blended) 1 tblsp light soy sauce Few drops of dark soy sauce for color 1 tblsp oyster sauce 1/3 cup chicken stock liquid This basic recipe will be fine for home use. We use another 4 ingredients which give it a more complex and restaurant taste. Panasia is the home of best and freshest Asian takeaways. Panasia was started up in 2006 by husband and wife Paul and Pimvalee and their two teenage children. They specialise in a varied menu of Thai and Chinese. More about their Thai food Auckland menu and the areas they deliver can be known from their website http://www.panasia.co.nz/auckland_asian_takeaway_delivery.