Sichuan peppercorn: A hot Chinese spice

I DIDN’T see it coming, that mild feeling of electric currents buzzing on my tongue as if I had licked a battery.

Seated on a busy pavement in front of a lazy Susan weighed down with sizzling hotpot, diced rabbit and fish soup, I was digging into a spicy meal on the humid first night of a visit to Chengdu, the capital of China’s south-western Sichuan province and the cradle of the region’s famously fiery cuisine.

The plates resembled volcanic islands, each dish’s contents swimming in chilli oil hidden beneath a red-hot mountain of peppers and garlic. Tongue ablaze and face flushed, I felt a prickliness starting to numb my taste buds. The waiter chuckled at my glistening forehead and handed me a handkerchief; it was clear who at the table was the foreigner not yet acclimated to local flavours.

Unsettling at first, that tingly feeling of electricity offered a pleasant reprieve from the heat. This curious effect was thanks to one of the most integral ingredients in this province’s distinctive cuisine: the tiny-but-mighty Sichuan peppercorn, a spice indigenous to China.

The seasoning’s English label is a misnomer, as the “peppercorns” are actually husks of dried berries from a type of prickly ash shrub. When you eat chillies, capsaicin induces a burning sensation known in Chinese as là.

Sichuan peppercorns produce a phenomenon called paraesthesia, in which the lips and tongue feel as though they are vibrating and go vaguely numb —  known as má. Together, the tandem combination of burning and numbing from these two ingredients is known in Chinese as málà, a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine that facilitates sweating —and thus creates a cooling effect that makes the sweltering climate more tolerable.

“The level of humidity in Sichuan can make you feel lethargic and uncomfortable,” Cheng Yi said, who owns the Cheng Big Mouth Frog restaurant, which specialises in Sichuan-style frog stew, in the nearby city of Chongqing. “Sichuan peppercorn not only adds fragrance, but also helps combat dampness.”

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the human body’s constitutions are intimately connected with the surrounding environment. Highly humid weather, which Chengdu experiences year-round, is said to create dampness in the body, which can lead to headaches and bloating. Eating spicy food and sweating can mitigate the adverse physiological effects of humidity.

“We always joke that if you have a cold, just go eat a meal of potently málà food and you will recover,” Cheng quipped. “By eliminating toxins from the body through sweating, you will feel much better the next day.”

I indeed felt cooler as the meal wore on, despite sitting outside in the moist air. And despite not feeling hungry at first, my stomach became a bottomless pit as I continued eating; the Sichuan peppercorn was also soothing my mouth with its vaguely anaesthetic prickliness, enabling me to eat more by rendering the spice of the chillies a little less fiery.

“When it’s humid in the summer, your appetite isn’t as good. But stimulating flavours can spur you to eat more,” Gan Siqi said, a born-and-bred Chengdu native and avid cook.

The cuisine’s restorative effects seem to have given Sichuan food a reputation within China for being rather irresistible. Gan frequently cooks Sichuan dishes for out-of-town guests and has seen many unwittingly get hooked on the cuisine.

“When people first try Sichuan food, on one hand they will fear it —  because they are pouring sweat and their tongues go numb — but they will also want to eat it again,” Gan said.

“As a foreigner, I wasn’t 100% convinced that hotpot was the best, or even that delicious. But I think it only took a few times, and I was hooked,” Trevor James, who explores Sichuan street food for his blog and YouTube channel The Food Ranger, said.

James told me many people have the misconception that Sichuan food is one-dimensionally hot. After living in Chengdu for six years, he would describe the food as more aromatic than spicy.

“The level of fragrance that you get in Sichuan food is unlike anything in the world,” he said.

Much of that unique fragrance comes from Sichuan peppercorn. And while málà is one of the best-loved flavour profiles of the cuisine, the peppercorn’s aroma plays a part across different types of Sichuan dishes, not only the spicy ones. Chefs often use it to heighten other seasonings and concoct more balanced, harmonious flavour profiles.

Simmering fresh Sichuan peppercorn in oil, for example, produces a vaguely numbing oil that can enhance noodles, salads and sauces. Grinding it into a powder makes an ideal addition to a dry rub for roasted meat. The spice’s ability to complement many different flavours partly explains how it became so ubiquitous in the region.

“Chongqing is a port city, and back in the day, a lot of workers did hard labour by the docks,” Elaine Luo, a Chongqing native who runs the blog China Sichuan Food, said. “The wealthy people in Sichuan ate a lot of beef, but they saw the offal as unrefined, something to throw away. So, the labourers would take the offal for a source of protein.”

For those workers in Chongqing, which was part of Sichuan province until 1997, Sichuan peppercorn was a cheap way to mask the gamey taste of otherwise pungent meats. Today, famous dishes such as fūqī fèi piàn — thinly sliced beef offal tossed with chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorn and garlic — make star ingredients of those cuts once considered lower-class.

Dining habits are often necessitated by geography and circumstance, and only later evolve into distinct regional lifestyles. Sichuan’s food is now considered one of the Eight Great Cuisines of China —  which are commonly recognised by Chinese chefs to be the best and most sophisticated cuisines in the country —  and in 2010, Chengdu was the first Asian city to be designated a Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy.

Thanks to the growing Chinese diaspora and increasing cultural exchange, Sichuan cuisine is also one of the most celebrated regional Chinese cuisines overseas, with restaurants such as hotpot chain Haidilao recently launching dozens of international locations in the United Kingdom, North America, Australia and Asia.

The cuisine’s popularity is especially impressive considering that the importation of Sichuan peppercorn to the United States was banned between 1968 and 2005 over concerns the spice may carry crop bacteria. — BBC Online.

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