I enjoy incorporating exotic spices into my cooking and recently purchased Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper from our local supermarket. This spice gets its name from the Sichuan province in China where it is widely used in cooking. It is one of the ingredients that make up Chinese Five Spice (together with star anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon) and is used throughout Asia and India.
Although not ‘fiery’or ‘hot’, sichuan pepper does have a numbing effect on the tongue.. Its aroma has been likened to that of lavender, and its flavour to that of citrus. The ‘numbing’ effect is thought to be due to the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which interacts with the nerve cell receptors in your mouth, and triggers this curious sensation.
Surprisingly this spice isn’t from either the black pepper or chilli pepper family at all. In fact it is produced from the seed casings of a species of prickly ash that grows wild in China. The reddish-brown berries are picked in autumn and left to dry in the sun, until the husks burst open. The black seeds inside are discarded as they have a bitter, sandy taste. The husks are gently roasted, which can then be used whole or ground into powder.
Sichuan pepper berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries for treating indigestion and flatulence.
Sichuan beef stir-fry
Stir-fries make wonderful easy nutritious meals, but can get a little boring when used over and over with the same old flavourings. Sichuan pepper gives this dish a delightful flavour. Chicken, pork or tofu could be used instead of beef. Make use of any alternative vegetables that you have in the fridge.
1tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
2tsp ground Sichuan pepper
1tsp dark soy sauce
1/2 tsp Chinese Five Spice powder
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 sirloin steaks, cut into strips
2 tsp peanut or sesame oil
1 medium red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 handful broccoli, cut into small pieces
1 handful mangetout
2 medium carrots, sliced
1 handful baby corn, sliced
1 red/orange/yellow pepper sliced
300ml beef or vegetable stock
1tbsp light soy sauce
1tbsp cornflour mixed with 2tbsp cold water
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Mix together the rice wine or sherry, spices, dark soy sauce and garlic, in a medium bowl. Add the beef and leave to marinate (overnight if possible).
- Heat a wok over high heat and add the oil. Then add the marinated beef and stir-fry for 2 minutes.
- Add the chilli and onion. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the rest of the vegetables and stir-fry for another minute.
- Add the stock and stir well. Add the light soy sauce.
- Bring to the boil, add the cornflour and water paste. Stir thoroughly.
- Add the spring onion, season with salt and pepper.
- Serve with wholewheat noodles or brown basmati rice.
Note: now once you’ve made this and enjoyed the taste experience, why not get a bit more adventurous and try it in a hot&sour noodle soup or "kung pao" chicken with dark leafy greens