Sichuan? Szechwan? Szechuan?
A few years ago, I found this funny little thorny plant at Uwajimaya that was labeled “Szechuan pepper corn, sex indeterminant.” I bought it, planted it and was told that nothing would happen unless it had a plant-of-the-opposite-sex within reasonable distance. So I resigned myself to having a conversation piece in the garden. A few years went by, and the plant grew large and thorny—I mean REALLY thorny—like something you would expect to see growing around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. And then something interesting happened.
It started to flower, and the flowers turned into little red berries, and in late fall the berries popped open to show shiny, little, round black seeds. Immaculate conception!
There are some tricks to harvesting the little red pods, which are the part of the “peppercorn” that you eat. The first trick is to avoid the thorns when you harvest the berries (this is actually impossible to do). Since they grow in clusters, you must then dry them, take off the little stems and pull each and every seed out of its husk.
Remember, it is the husk that you are after, even though the glistening black seeds look kind of like peppercorns. But it you eat that little black seed you will experience the sensation of eating dirt. Some people like that sort of thing, but not me.
Is it worth the effort? Growing your own Szechuan peppercorns is the best way to assure their absolute flowery freshness. And the TASTE! Actually, it is more of a feel, like microscopic electric bubbles that numb your lips and tongue, but at the same time make them more receptive to other taste sensations. The Szechuan pepper corns that I have purchased at the store have much less impact.
That being said, the store-bought kind are what most of the world lives with. And they can still pack a punch. And if you want some seeds to grow your own plants, I am happy to share.
My favorite way to use these little red husks is with fresh Dungeness crab. I adapted this recipe from the crab they serve at The Flying Fish in Seattle.
Salt and Pepper Crab
This is easy beyond belief!
Start with a whole cooked crab—the bigger the better. Dismember it and take off the spongy gills, but save that gunky “crab miso,” which is actually yummy crab fat.
Heat dry wok and toast until fragrant 2t Sichuan pepper corn, 1 t five spice powder, 1 t rock salt, 2 T oil, 1 t black pepper and 2 mashed cloves of garlic. Add “crab butter” and let it melt, add cracked crab and a couple of glugs of shiaoshing wine or sake until just heated through.
This is really good with cold soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) tossed in a little memmi sauce (all of which you can get at Uwajimaya or another Asian food store) and some slaw tossed with a dressing of 1T fish sauce, juice of a lime, garlic, 1t sugar and chopped cilantro.
And speaking of five spice powder. Did you know that Szechuan peppercorns are a key ingredient?
Five Spice Powder
Just throw 3 T cinnamon, 6 broken star anise seeds, 1 ½ t each of fennel seeds and Szechuan pepper corns and ¾ t cloves into a blender and whirl it around until it is pulverized.
Szechuan Pickled Vegetables
Yummy and healthy!
Pan roast together 2T Szechuan pepper corns and 1/3 C rock salt until nice and fragrant, about 3 or 4 minutes. After it cools, add it to 8 C boiling water along with a tablespoon of sugar, 2 T mirin, a few slices of ginger, a couple mashed garlic cloves; let it cool and then add about 3 lbs of vegetables (like sliced carrots, daikon, cukes, cabbage and/or red pepper. Let it set in the fridge for a few days.
Do you have any favorite Szechuan peppercorn recipes? Let me know!