Sugar and Spice; Sichuan Pepper.

The Boating Lake: Singleton Park. Photo: Mr. Edible.

The Boating Lake: Singleton Park. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Not so familiar…

While national identity and national symbols are scrutinised across the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum, down at the municipal boating lake not is all as it seems.  In addition to the predicable swans, the dragon paddling boats have always struck me as rather elaborate in design for a small nation/principality/country such as ours.   In fact they turn out on close inspection to be impressive Chinese dragons, a fact that will possibly either please or confuse the new intake of Far Eastern students who are arriving for the new university year.   We Welsh cleave to our national symbol, so much so that confusingly most of our public bodies have the red dragon as their logo.  At least the Chinese dragon can be readily identified by the pearl of wisdom it grasps in its claw.   The new Chinese intake will probably know more of the history of the UK and China than their British counterparts:  the opium wars, the Boxer rebellion, the destruction of the Summer Palace … Hong Kong.

The Boating Lake: Singleton Park. Photo: Mr. Edible.

The Boating Lake: Singleton Park. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Not so strange…

I noted groups of Chinese customers in the relatively new Szechuan Savour in Walter Road – a good sign I thought, along with the straightforward cafe decor.  Sichuan cuisine is special, the first night of our 2008 trip to China ‘John’, the group’s guide took us on a long journey through the dark streets of Beijing to a Sichuan restaurant that was the nearest we got to the province.  In an elaborate structure with a courtyard they served food that was deliciously warm and spicy.  ‘John’ admitted that he became addicted to the Sichuan food when a student and it was obvious why.  Although it is known for its use of chilli pepper, it can contain a distinctive amount of Sichuan pepper.  Lemony, resiny, warm and slightly numbing, it is a spice that manages to be comforting and stimulating at the same time.

Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungei, Z. piperitum) is like neither chilli nor black pepper, being in a group of aromatic plants that is known for their medicinal properties in various places around the world.  This includes the North American Prickly Ash (Z. Americana & Z. clava-herculis).  Sichuan pepper is said to counteract the ill-effects of the damp climate of its native province (rheumatism, arthritis, and also digestive complaints), a welcome addition then to this small rain-swept principality.  The spice is popular in other regional Chinese cuisines, so we recently unearthed some dusty stock from an episode of making Gong Bao chicken some years ago.  Now I opened a newly delivered pack of this extraordinary spice.  Freshness is everything with Sichuan pepper, tasting just a licked finger tip was like a long dive into aromatic icy-cold water.  The various aromatic oils played in sequence on the tongue leaving me slightly breathless.

Photo: Mr. Edible

Sichuan pepper; Zanthoxylum husks. Photo: Mr. Edible

We are fortunate to have food writer Fushsia Dunlop to guide us through the vast culture of Chinese food; one which, after our three week-trip, we felt rather humbled to experience.  It is extraordinary in its sophistication, range, delicacy and quality of execution.  However, as she quotes in her cookbook, Sichuan Cookery (2001), ‘China is the place for food but Sichuan is the place for flavour.’

In my next life want to be Fuchsia Dunlop, not only is her name rather wonderful but she is enviably clever.  I could have done with her linguistic skills when I went to the Swansea restaurant.  Knowing a little but not enough I asked for help in choosing a dish stating my liking for Sichuan pepper.  ‘Ah hot’ replied the patient waitress as the small lunch-time dining area filled up.  ‘No, Sichuan pepper,’   ‘Ah prickly’,  ‘Yes, Prickly Ash!’,  ‘Oh’.  And so on.  In the end we decided I should have ‘funny-flavoured noodles’ from the menu, this oddly named dish included so many flavours that Sichuan pepper was bound to be there somewhere.

'Funny flavour' Noodles. Photo: Mr. Edible.

‘Funny flavour’ noodles. Photo: Mr. Edible.

I was not disappointed; the message must have got through to the kitchen as my lips numbed pleasantly.  A cold dish, it was sweet, sour, salty, spicy and nutty in permutations and combinations.   It is recognised part of Sichuan cuisine that is faintly humorous – goodness me, whatever next – but delicious.  Fuchsia Dunlop translates it a ‘strange-flavoured’; a less linguistically accurate but more attractive description would be ‘generously flavoured’.   Within a day or so I’d attempted ‘Strange-Flavour Peanuts’, a recipe whose title would not otherwise tempt me in a world full of recipes clamouring to be made.  They are a gorgeous nibble and were repeated with cashew nuts within days.  Freshly made, they make shop-bought nibbles appear lifeless and stale.  They are a way of bringing Sichuan pepper into the house and keep it there to warm one in the winter ahead.  Think of it as a friendly pet red dragon; curled up warm and contentedly in you store cupboard ready to enhance your food and you well-being.  Such is the insinuating way of this spice that it currently has a place in our household breakfasts; ‘Sichuan’ boiled egg and toast, and ‘Sichuan’ poor knights of Windsor.

Strange-Flavour Peanuts Guai wei hua ren.

008

‘Generously-flavoured’ cashews. Photo: Mr. Edible.

Fushsia Dunlop’s recipe gives a full description of the dish; its variations and its background.  This is a account of my amateur experience.

               ½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper.

The recipe nearly finished here as by gently dry roasting the spice and grinding it down you have a potent condiment (sieving the result makes it a finer product).  Mixing this with three times the quantity of salt makes jiao yan.  Authentically used as a dip for deep-fried foods and now a condiment for our savoury breakfasts.

               ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon chilli powder.

Alter either quantity to your taste, or the strength of the spices.  I took the ‘stranger’ option by adding a little finely grated garlic and fresh ginger to the spice mix and did not regret it.

               100ml of water, 150g sugar.

After dissolving the sugar into the water on a gentle heat, it is boiled up to  the hardball stage (125°C).  I usually leave the high-wire act of sugar cookery to more organised cooks, but with this small quantity and with the ‘safety net’ of a large wok I knew no danger.

               1 teaspoon clear rice vinegar

Add this to the hot sugar solution together with the spice mixture.  I completely forgot the rice vinegar the first time.  The result was fine but the sourness does cut the dish’s inherent sweetness, balancing the flavours.

               200g roasted peanuts (de-skinned)

Fuchsia advices vigour here.  Maybe I let the sugar solution cool a little too much but I found myself in a tussle with a white dragon as I chased the large lump of nuts and quickly hardening sugar solution around the pan with a big wooden kitchen spoon.  Persistence wins the day.  If some nuts stick together – it’s just what they do.

Reaching in the cupboard for the spices I was tempted to try this recipe with some Indian spice mixes.  It also struck me that it was a way to test out spice mixes in general.  Strange chicken anyone?

Szechuan Savour, 34 Walter Road Swansea.

Fuchsia Dunlop, Sichuan Cookery, Penguin 2001.

The Spicery.  www.thespicery.com.

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