No, it is not a ring.
(Though, I have to say, my jade and gold wedding ring rocks most bodaciously.)
My most best beloved flavor, my precious, is my hoard of Sichuan peppercorns.
Fagara. Hua jiao. Ma lar. Sansho.
Called by many names across Asia, the spice known to me as Sichuan peppercorns are the mature fruit of a medium sized shrub called colloquially “prickly ash” or “mountain ash.” The fruits come in the form of a pericarp, which is the mature ovary wall which contains the seeds of the plant. The seeds are said by some to be bitter, however, this has not been my experience. On the other hand, their texture is less than stellar, and so if you can remove them before using the spice, particularly when it is to remain whole, then you avoid the rather sand-like grittiness they can impart to a dish.
Often there are little twigs or thorns present in among the pericarps which must be picked out carefully, as they contain no essential oils to speak of and are a choking hazard.
The little fruits range in color from dark brownish red to a bright brick color; I have found that the brighter the color the fresher they seem to be. The aroma is complex: floral with a strong hint of lemon (likely owing to the citronellal terpine found as a constituent of the essential oil) and a black pepper-like overtone. The flavor is equally multi-faceted; it is astringent and biting without being hot in the way of either black pepper or chile, but at the same time, it has a lingering herbal quality that always reminds me of the way a field of rosemary in bloom smells. In addition to the dancing bouquet of flavors and aromas present in the Sichuan peppercorn, eating the spice gives the diner a pleasant tingling or numbness to the lips and tongue that is both cooling and warming at the same time. This is a harmless, transitory effect; after eating, the sensation fades quickly.
Because the prickly ash is a member of the citrus family, and apparently can carry a very virulent disease called citrus canker; for a time in the recent past, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from being imported into the US. Apparently the ban had been in effect for a very long time, but had never been enforced. With devastating losses of Florida citrus crops due to a newer outbreak of the disease, the FDA began enforcing the ban vigorously, and apparently, some retail stores had their stocks forcibly removed and destroyed.
However, within the past few months, the ban has been lifted; it has been found that if the peppercorns are heat treated, any disease-causing organisms that it might carry can be destroyed, without much loss of flavor or aromatic quality.
As soon as I heard about the ban, I ordered about eight ounces of the spice, and managed to store it quite effectively in a way which preserved both flavor and scent. I had been given conflicting advice on how to keep it fresh; one source gave the standard advice to keep the spice in a cool dark place, sealed airtight, while another source insisted that I keep it in a loosely woven basket in a dark cool place in order to allow air circulation.
I went my own way and sealed the pericarps in air-tight double layered ziplock freezer bags from which I removed all the air. Then I bagged them again, so that four layers of plastic protected it from the cold and the light, and tucked them into my freezer. I kept the majority of the peppercorns this way, with only a small supply left out in a small sealed bottle for every day use at any given time, replentishing from the freezer as needed. This arrangement worked wonderfully; I managed to keep the peppercorns fresh and flavorful until the ban was lifted about a year and a half later. I just recently used the last of that batch and they had just begun to lose their characteristic zingy scent.
I have had good luck purchasing Sichuan peppercorns online through the CMC Company.
I heard it through some posts on Chowhound after the ban that CMC had a good supply of pre-ban Sichuan peppercorns left, so I clicked the link and purchased some. At that point, there were none to be found locally. When they came, they were a nice dark russet and very fragrant. I still have a few of them left, but have since bought new ones at the local Chinese market which were redder, and were so aromatic that after just picking up the bag, the scent lingered on my fingertips. Mmm: better than perfume!
I generally feel that if you can get them locally, you should inspect the Sichuan peppercorns carefully; as I noted above, they should be brightly colored, and the scent should penetrate the plastic or cellophane wrapper. I will not buy them in glass or plastic jars, because there is no way to gauge the smell through airtight containers. I have never failed in choosing them by either sticking with a tried and true supplier like CMC or trusting my nose to tell me a good batch from a bag that has been sitting around forgotten and lonely for years on the bottom shelf in the shop.
I seldom use them whole, as I do not like the texture of them, even in braised foods. I have also noticed that they give a sharper, more penetrating flavor when ground. Before grinding them, however, I always toast them in a small cast iron skillet over medium heat. I pour them in a single layer in the bottom of the skillet, and shake it constantly over the burner, though you can also stir them. This keeps the spice from scorching; scorched Sichuan peppercorns have an acrid, bitter pungency which is less than salutary. As soon as the color deepens slightly and the scent suddenly intensifies, they are ready. I pour them into a shallow bowl to cool before grinding them finely.
When I use them in stir fries, I like to do it in two stages; I put half the amount into the oil after it has just heated up, at the same time as I put in the scallions, garlic, ginger and chiles. This flavors the oil and allows the spices to meld together. Then, I add the rest right before serving, in order to preserve the lemony top notes of the spice and to deepen the darker bouquet of the peppercorn-flavored oil.
Since I haven’t had time to stir fry in days, and I am going to pack my wok tomorrow (whimper, whine, sniff) I will not post a recipe of my own featuring my precious. However, I am giving a link to a recipe from Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, which I -have- made in the past and found to be a great way to feature the haunting and addicting flavor of Sichuan peppercorns.
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