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Sichuan's Finest Spice

on Fri, 11/23/2012 - 07:06

It has been quite some time since I last posted, truth be told it has been over a year (though if you've been following me on facebook, I do get something up there almost daily).  In any event, I owe you an explanation and a commitment to be back on here regularly.  It took close to a year to gather and coordinate all the information to create this new space with my wonderful designer, Patricia Callison, and patient programmer, Conor Browne.  We are still working on it, with some exciting new features soon to be unveiled.  It's a lot of work.  In addition to that in this time I relocated to the city of Chongqing in the Sichuan region of China and have now been here over a year.  I dedicate half my day to studying and learning Chinese so that I can interview subjects, research, and translate things on my own.  The other half, to doing that research and all the work related to how to eat your medicine.  There is a lot to share, so much that I am really excited to begin sharing it .... now!

Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to one of my favorite of the herbs/spices/medicinals that I have had the pleasure of really getting to eat, enjoy, and understand here in Sichuan : the Sichuan Peppercorn, also known as Hua Jiao 花椒.  It is not only a spice found in all supermarkets but it is also found in the pharmacies as it is an official Traditional Chinese Medicinal as well. 

Sichuan Peppercorns are almost always present in any meal you will partake of in the Sichuan region.  In Chongqing, every single local will share with you the reason for this : because it is damp we eat the ma la flavor (ma la means numb-spicy, which is created with a combo of chiles and Sichuan Peppercorns) in order to prevent illnesses that are caused by dampness and/or coldness such as arthritis, chronic headaches, sinus issues, and digestive troubles, to name a few.  All the locals know this, and I have met very few who do not adhere to it. 

In Chinese Medicine, Sichuan Peppercorns are used to (see Kamwo Pharmacy for more on this) warm the interior, they are considered acrid (spicy) and slightly toxic due to their opiate-like effect which is what causes the "numbness" in the ma la flavor found in Sichuan.  Consequently, this is very handy for tooth pain much like cloves are.  Sichuan Peppercorns warm the digestion when it is cold, diseperse cold in the body, alleviate pain, and can even help kill parasites.  They are used internally or topically for pain. 

Now you may be wondering, how do I use these at home if I am not well versed in Sichuan cuisine?  Well, it's really, really simple.  Get some Sichuan Peppercorns and make sure they have a fragrance that wafts out at you when you buy them.  Though it is difficult to get the freshest ones like I do here in Chongqing where you can smell them from many meters away, a good sniff will help you find decent ones.  Then, buy some dried (or fresh) chiles that are to your liking in terms of hotness.  If you're not so keen to burn off your head like I am, then get a mellow chile.  Next, pick a meat, fish, or tofu as well as some garlic, scallions, and soy sauce.  Get out your wok or a pan.  Chop up your chicken, fish, beef, or (firm) tofu.  If you can get your hands on some dou ban jiang this will really make the dish but because this might be difficult, do not fret, improvise as I am telling you to do here.  Add a vegetable oil to your pan to slick the bottom nicely without overdoing it.  In Sichuan they traditionally use rapeseed oil which is heat resistant and said to be good for your digestion.  Next, turn up the flame and get it hot, have your chopped garlic, scallions, Sichuan Peppercorns, chiles, and whatever meat you are using on hand.  First toss in the Sichuan Peppercorns and chiles, let the scent hit you in the face - pow! Lovely.  Following that, add the garlic, let it also release some scent but not for too long as you don't want it to brown or blacken - quickly add the chicken (or fish, meat, etc).  Stir it all about.  Add dou ban jiang (1 large heaping tablespoon +) or alternately if you don't have that use soy sauce (2-3 tablespoons).  When it is all melding together as you are stirring it and cooking, you will add the chopped scallions at the very last minute.  Serve with rice and use this dish to protect your digestion, your circulation, prevent or treat pain, and get rid of that nasty headache caused by the damp weather!  Side note : do not eat the Sichuan Peppercorns, they are there for flavor not for munching. 

See you on here again soon. 


Seb's picture

Have missed you for the last year - glad to see that there will be more regular posts - looking forward to reading them...

mj's picture

it will be nice to see the blog regularly again.  Great to have the photos, the theory and the recipes!  

niece 's picture


it  is gteat

niece 's picture


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