Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face!

Post
EliseT
Filet Mignon
2007/04/05 04:31:48



My report on Szechuan peppers...

Sometimes, while out wandering in the bars and clubs of Los Angeles, you might hear rumors about a Chinese restaurant whose food makes your face go numb. You might eavesdrop on whispered conversations about a secret chicken dish that makes you hallucinate. In a certain area of Monterey Park, it is rumored, they cook with an illegal pepper that possesses drug-like qualities. My friends have all attested to the numbing and blissful effects of this chicken dish. Even my husband, Bob, has made the trek on the Monterey Park version of the Marrakesh Express. Last night I finally coerced our friend, Jason, into taking us out for hallucinogenic chicken.

I did a little research, and discovered that the magical Szechuan peppers (huajiao), are the dried berries of the Prickly Ash. They were banned because of a bacteria that could endanger California's citrus crops, not because of any narcotic properties (the ban has since been lifted). Which is actually kind of disappointing. It is exciting to think that you are sampling something secret and forbidden. So if anyone hears about any opium-laced dumplings, give me a call.

There are a handful of restaurants along Garfield Avenue that cook with the huajiao pepper, and each one seems to have its devotees. Last night Jason took us to Heath and Gina's fave, Chung King. With only 8 tables and minimal decor, the little restaurant looks deceptively like a greasy spoon. Chung King resembles one of the $1 Chinese Food places that populate America's strip malls. But do not be fooled - this is not your local strip mall. just a few miles from home, you are deep within another culture.

After placing your order, you head to the back of the restaurant to a glass deli counter full of exotic delights. I eyed the tripe, but nobody else seemed interested. I find I sometimes want to eat something daring just to test myself, and I actually have no interest in it at all. Each cold plate comes with three selections. Bob did not seem very decisive, so I ordered the pig ear, dried beef, and pickled long beans.

I selected a slice of pig's ear. It was very different than the pig's ear I had eaten in France, which was a big, chewy mass of cartilege. This was thinly sliced, steaked with ribbons of fat, and lightly pickled in a combination of spices, including most recognizably star anise and hot chile. The fat melted deliciously on my tongue like gelatin, but then my mouth caught on fire. It was like napalm. The fat coated your mouth, trapping the hot chili with it, so it was impossible to douse the flames.

The dried beef was like thick strips of beef jerky, extremely salty, but one of the least spicy items on the menu. I should have noticed the crushed Szechuan peppers coating the sides. My lips started tingling, parasthenia was setting in. This combination of elements is known as Ma La, literally "numb heat". My mouth had the strangest sensation of numbness, and then I felt my throat swell. I feared my throat would close up and I would be unable to breathe, so I pushed aside the cold platter.

The Delicious Smelled Beef was delicious, the meat so tender it seemed like it didn't even have any "grain" to it at all. I really liked the grub-looking slices of bamboo shoot. But it was painfully hot, even with my mouth already numb.

The hot pot beef and fish was homey and comforting. The fish, which we guessed was some type of cod, was tender and perfectly cooked. But again, super-hot-spicy! The best dish on the menu was the chicken, fried to perfection without a trace of greasiness. But this was the dish famous for those peppers, and after one paranoid suffocating episode, I didn't want to overdo it.

Jason asked the owner to bring some of the peppers out for me to look at, and she returned with a scant few in a white bowl. To see how strong they were, I pretended like I was going to down them like a shot of whiskey. I could tell by the way everyone freaked out and grabbed for the bowl, then laughed, relieved, that they really were not fooling around. She waited for me to photograph them, then stood there until I handed them back, and whisked them back to the kitchen. So they are either very expensive and dear, or very dangerous. The waitress came up to expound on the wonder of the peppers. She and Jason talked for awhile, then strangely, he started rubbing her forearm. He interpreted, "She said that Szechuan is cold and humid, so they have to eat this pepper to clean out all of the toxins. She said that is why girls from Szechuan province have the softest skin in the world, which is why I had to see for myself."

There was much discussion between us as to whether or not the huajiao pepper was making us high. I definitely felt lightheaded and strange. That reaction could be attributed to the insane amount of hot chiles we had consumed, or even the culture shock of being in such a new environment. There was definitely an anaesthetic effect. It was compared to cocaine and mild psychedelics.



Has anyone else had this face-numbing experience? What did you think?


GordonW
Double Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 08:13:45
I've never done genuine Szechuan peppers, but have gotten close in some other cuisines. Something about release of endorphins that is similar to drugs.

Anthony Bourdain's "Nasty Bits" book has a fun chapter on Szechuan peppers.
BunglingBill
Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 09:09:15
Great story, Elise!

Your post reminds me of a delicious Chinese dish I recently prepared from a recipe I found on the net:

http://www.rasamalaysia.com/2006/12/chinese-recipe-szechuan-wok-fried.html

It's a wok-fried chicken incorporating the Szechuan peppers. The recipe also includes a little bit of additional information about the spice.

Bill
Ashphalt
Double Chili Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 09:46:36
Elise, another great report, and a great place.

After many years off the market (I have been looking for a while) Penzey's is now selling Szechuan peppercorns. I toast a teaspoon or so, crush them, and put them on our Dan Dan noodles (noodles with a pork peanut or sesame sauce served hot and dressed with scallions and sprouts). They really add a different dimension to one of our favorite dishes. With careful use, IMO they're hot but not with the expected capsacin hot, more of a nasal aromatic burn, and a sort of spruce-y or pine-y flavor.

I'm looking for other uses for them.

As for trippy peppers, I did once have an experience many years ago at a Vietnamese place in NYC, under the Williamsburg Bridge. Our group was brought there by a lovely young Vietnamese woman who had been there before. I remember tasting some soup and going into head rushes. After that it's a faint blur...

Never did find that restaurant, again, either.
artphon
Junior Burger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 09:46:51
I used to cook with Szechuan peppercorns 25 or so years ago. Then for a long time, they were not available, apparently because of the ban. About 3 years ago, a Chinese graduate student of mine "smuggled" some back for me from Szechuan during a trip home. I've had the numbness, of course, and even got it while preparing the sauce for one of the dishes I served this last Thanksgiving. But in small quantities, it is a delightful spice, adding a dimension other peppers do not have.
DLnWPBrown
Double Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 10:36:30
I've got to get some and give them a try.

Dennis in Cary
EliseT
Filet Mignon
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 11:47:21
Well, for other uses for them...while researching, I heard them mentioned a lot in Ma pao Dofu, and this place used them in a pickling brine, so i would think you could use them when making anything you would boil with star anise. They were also mixed in a fried chicken, and a beef jerky.

I used to get "Szechuan peppers" that were red, and had a pit, so I don't think those are the same. You may have to find them in Asian markets.

tiki
Filet Mignon
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 11:47:56
Elise--you are true treasure!!! Great report!! Thanks--now , gotta put this place on the list for our next trip west!!!
lleechef
Sirloin
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 11:53:09
Elise, all I can say is.....only YOU would post such a HILARIOUS report!!!
Tristan Indiana
Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 11:58:30
quote:
Originally posted by artphon

I used to cook with Szechuan peppercorns 25 or so years ago. Then for a long time, they were not available, apparently because of the ban. About 3 years ago, a Chinese graduate student of mine "smuggled" some back for me from Szechuan during a trip home. I've had the numbness, of course, and even got it while preparing the sauce for one of the dishes I served this last Thanksgiving. But in small quantities, it is a delightful spice, adding a dimension other peppers do not have.


I remember reading this the other day:

Great news for chefs in the U.S.! Szechuan peppercorns, which had been banned in the US because they can carry a citrus canker, are available once again. Legally. The peppercorns have to be heat-treated to kill any possible canker.

The article also described how true Kung Po Chicken uses these peppercorns and is quite different from the dish I am familiar with and like very much.
Ashphalt
Double Chili Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 11:59:11
That's right! Ma Po tofu! I make it often enough that I forget what I'm doing but Szechuan peppercorns are good in it.

Fried chicken reminds of something. There was a Chinese take-out on 9th Avenue between 57th and 58th (back when that was a "dicey" neighborhood) that served an addictive half-chicken and fried rice (seriously, I know of one marriage that broke up when they went out of business and the wife couldn't bring home the special chicken any longer). I'd watch them hack up a bird, swish it in a soy-based marinade and wok-fry it. I'll bet the round bits of spice in that marinade were szechuan pepper.
mollydingle
Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/05 15:27:38
I remember years ago, before tachycardia was a daily part of my life, I had some AWESOME quesadillas in a now-defunct restaurant in Charlestown ,NH. They had some sort of chile on it that triggered palpitations. It was wonderful and I would have died happy!
Now, I have a pacer/AICD combo that allows me to eat anything!
EliseT
Filet Mignon
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/06 00:30:09
quote:
Originally posted by tiki

Elise--you are true treasure!!! Great report!! Thanks--now , gotta put this place on the list for our next trip west!!!


You've got to put ME on the list for your next trip West!

lleechef
Sirloin
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/06 00:56:22
Elise, darlin, the gal that taught us the meaning of "snarky".......you are the ONLY reason for a trip West!!!
EliseT
Filet Mignon
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/06 04:08:20
quote:
Originally posted by lleechef

Elise, darlin, the gal that taught us the meaning of "snarky".......you are the ONLY reason for a trip West!!!


Well, that and the burritos.

tiki
Filet Mignon
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/06 05:59:16
quote:
Originally posted by EliseT

quote:
Originally posted by tiki

Elise--you are true treasure!!! Great report!! Thanks--now , gotta put this place on the list for our next trip west!!!


You've got to put ME on the list for your next trip West!




you already are!!
Born in OKC
Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/04/07 08:17:05
In the Atlanta area, "Tasty China" in Marietta, with chef Peter Chang, is the leading proponent of cooking with the Sichuan pepper corns and the results are exactly as described. In fact, all kinds of peppers are used with a generous hand. The other night I had a chicken dish that more like very highly seasoned fajitas than almost any Chinese preparation in my experience. And there are several items on the menu new to me that are not hot, but just highly seasoned and good. Chef Chang is said to have itchy feet. If you ever learn that he has moved to your area, don't wait to visit!
DLnWPBrown
Double Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/05/04 13:00:31
If memory serves me, there is a decorative pepper that is edible. It is the plant where the peppers are cone shapes and are different colors. We know they are edible because my bother ( dip$hit ) ate some many years ago. He was on the floor in pain and had to have his stomache pumped. The doctor said he was sick from eating too many... he ate 3!

No side effects from the peppers except the heat level. The doctor said they were hotter than habaneros.


Dennis in Cary
rongmtek
Double Cheeseburger
RE: Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face! 2007/05/04 14:45:46
When I travelled the world as a young man, my girlfriend and I spent about 2 months in Kabul, Afghanistan. We became close with a French couple who traveled overland every summer to buy handicrafts for their shop. Jean-Pierre considered himself quite the practical joker. One day, he handed me something that looked like a scotch bonnet pepper (which I knew nothing about at the time). Expecting the worst, I bit off about as much as you would when biting a fingernail. Immediately, tears began streaming down my face. My mouth and face became numb for almost twenty minutes!
I have never found anything remotely close to the searing heat of this pepper since then.