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Sichuan in Western Cooking

Sichuan in Western Cooking? It Could Work, Ask the Romans!

East meets West. Not only dan dan mian, but Sichuan peppercorn is also now used in the most innovative kitchens with chocolate and even foie gras.

Sichuanese food is just endlessly stimulating and exciting. We at DeZhuang are big fans of the Sichuan peppercorn. Real big! Sichuan pepper (Huājiāo) was used in Chinese cuisine well before black or white pepper was introduced by way of the spice route. In Sichuan, hua jiao is everywhere as the basis of plenty of dishes. We like to keep a pepper grinder full of them handy, just as I would any other type of peppercorn. We also keep a jar of oil flavored with toasted and ground-up Sichuan peppercorns. The oil is fragrant enough to drizzle over roasted vegetables and meat.

Western restaurants already started using Sichuan peppercorns in such delicious and new ways. The ingredient has been lifted out of the confines of China and become the latest playthings of innovative kitchens. Best known for its numbing effect the aboriginal Chinese spice is finding itself in bread, chocolate, wine, and even foie gras! The Michelin-starred chef Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung, was one of the first to explore this amazing ingredient. The trick says Nocente, is in knowing how to manipulate its characteristics. “The numbness comes from the skin and not from the pepper itself,” he says. “So, when you crush it down there are two different flavors.” The other hidden flavor turns out to be a gentle heat. Christophe Lerouy of Dstllry par Christophe Lerouy being famous for putting Sichuan peppercorn…in his sweets! “Sichuan peppercorns have a very distinct fragrance to it, very different from other peppercorns with slightly lemony notes yet not as spicy,” says Lerouy. “Chocolate with peppercorns always taste great together, I decided to add a touch of fusion to this simple petite four and use Sichuan peppercorns.”

From left to right, Chef Drew Nocente (source: http://saltedandhung.com.sg/chef/) and Chef Christophe Lerouy (source: http://gourmet-japan.com/portfolio/chef-christophe-lerouy/)

Anyway, we should pay attention. Hua jiao is not an ingredient to be trifled with. Too much and it might turn off diners who did not ask for a dish that could numb their taste receptors for the rest of the meal. But you don’t need to go to a Michelin star restaurant to enjoy the combination of East and West cookery traditions. Check out our ideas to use the addictive spice in the tongue-sizzling slideshow, not only in a Chinese way!

Numbing Sliced Turkey – Well…we are not in China, but the classic Sichuan flavors of chili oil, vinegar, and Sichuan peppercorns go together fantastically with cold leftover turkey. This dish can also be made with sliced pork or chicken, and it’s a welcome change during the summer days. To make chili oil, combine 1/2 cup crushed red pepper flakes (preferably Chinese) with 1/2 cup oil in a small saucepan. Heat until lightly bubbling, then remove from heat. Allow to steep for several hours or overnight. Chile oil can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three months in a sealed container.

Sichuan meets Cacio e Pepe – Cacio e Pepe is a classic Rome dish that’s pretty hard to mess up but also very difficult to innovate. Even not ask a native to change this iconic dish, they will be mad. Cacio e Pepe directly translates to “cheese and pepper.” So why not get a little creative when considering the pepper half of the equation? Instead of just black peppercorns, we suggest using in the recipe black, white, AND Sichuan peppercorns for a spicy, very slightly “numbing” concoction. The result? East meets West! Mixing your peppercorns and load them into a grinder, the black and white peppercorns will provide warmth and spice, and the Sichuan peppercorns leave that most excellent tingly numbness in your mouth, giving the dish a whole new level of complexity, that with pecorino cheese…is deadly amazing!

Sichuan-flavored pizza – This is the perfect idea for those who do not want to spend too much time cooking. Friday night is pizza night? Tired of the same toppings? Just follow my lead. What do you need? Only a pizza (or two..or three). Liberally garnished with Sichuan chili peppers or Sichuan chili oil (both only for the bravest), which pair nicely with the creamy mozzarella cheese, your anonymous Margherita pizza will pack a punch. Love having that numbing feeling on your tongue? You can either tackle the challenge yourself or make it a friendly competition with some buddies. Either way, you’re guaranteed to have a spicy Friday night.