What ingredients and menu items are popular with restaurant chefs these days?
We’ve already talked about a few of them – caramel, different kinds of sauces, in-house charcuterie and the return of pork to restaurant menus, mint, turkey and French fries as sidings. Now we shall talk about a special kind of Asian spice that is slowly gaining its own footing in the restaurant scene, and is s
lowly becoming a favorite among chefs: Szechuan peppercorns.
Szechuan peppercorns, contrary to what many people believe, are not peppers at all. They are actually from a species that is somehow related to peppers known as the “prickly ash tree.” Szechuan peppercorns are a vital ingredient in the Chinese five spice that is endemic in Chinese cuisine, said to create a yin and yang balance to food.
It has a distinctive aroma and flavor that is neither hot nor pungent like white, black or chili pepper, but instead has delicate lemony undertones that balance the flavor of the food that is being eaten. Its foremost claim to prominence, however, is the strong numbing sensation it causes around the mouth—chefs, in their stylish chef hats, believe that the numbing effect lessens the chili peppers’ heat, allowing diners to appreciate the chili’s strong fruity flavor. The Chinese call the numbing sensation ma, while the spicy burn of chili peppers is called la. When combined, the diners encounter a ma la experience, similar in philosophy to the Chinese’ respected yin and yang.
Christopher Loss, the Culinary Institute of America’s director for menu research and development says that Szechuan pepper may be the key to finally reduce sodium in the American diners’ diet–the numbing sensation can distract the tongue from detecting that there’s lesser salt in our food.
And chefs in fancy chef hats across the country realize that the spice can work in a variety of preparations.
Steven Devereaux Greene from Cary,N.C.’s An New World Cuisine, for instance, makes use of Szechuan pepper blended with ginger, lemon grass, garlic, scallions, star anise, cilantro and jalapeno peppers to marinade a rack of lamb. He adds a bit of mirin, water and dark mushroom soysauce to the marinade, soaks the lamb for about 12 hours then grills and roasts it.
Talde restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y. has its chef Dale Talde talk about using Szechuan peppercorns in making their delightful kungpao monkfish. “Heat your vegetable oil in a wok, toss the peppercorns at the height of its heat, then turn off and allow the oil to cool,” explained Talde. “After removing the cooled oil with peppercorns, heat the wok again, then add peanuts, cornstarch-coated monkfish, and sauce made from chili bean paste, oyster sauce, a bit of sweet Thai chili sauce and the Szechuan peppercorn oil. Stir-fry the monkfish until cooked, then serve.”
Private chef Wade Burch makes use of the spice in a cream paste for his Arctic char, blended with orange soy glaze and drizzled on wasabi mashed potatoes. Josh DeChellis of Niko in New York says he loves Szechuan peppercorns in his salads, mixing it with sansho vinegar. Matthew Anderson of Umami Asian Kitchen in Chagrin Falls, Ohio combines the spice with onion, ginger and garlic in oil, then rubs it on pork belly for marinade.
Pastry chef Shawn Gawle, from Corton in New York, even thinks that Szechuan peppers are great for desserts—he’s planning on adding it to a meringue and serve it with rhubarb. “The rhubarb’s bitterness and the meringue’s sweetness could be very well balanced by the peppercorn’s lemony flavor,” says Gawle. Thus the yin and yang, ma la experience.