Thursday, February 5, 2009

Red chilis and Sichuan pepper: A match made in Heaven or Hell?

Below: Chilis sun-drying on a farmhouse roof. Above: Sichuan pepper dried, bought in market and on the branch, Danba, Sichuan ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Is it possible to write a blog geographically located in Sichuan and not talk about those two most heavenly, culinary creations: chili peppers and Sichuan pepper? As soon as you arrive in Sichuan the smell of cooking oil permeated with billions of stir-fried chilli and Sichuan Pepper molecules will twitch your nose and alert your senses to one of the great sensations of the oflactory world. The misty, humid air of this province is perfectly constructed to retain all the smells of daily life, and frankly speaking either you like the smells around here or you don't! And the same goes with huajiao, the quintessential Sichuan spice.  The pro and cons of chilis and Sichuan pepper in Sichuan cooking is a subject many foreigners are fond of discussing, usually ending in the comment that either they don't like it or that there is too much of both in the local food. Even Chinese from other parts of the country will agree with the laowai when the subject comes up. Indeed the first thing most Sichuanese ask you after "Where do you come from?" is "Can you take the food?". If you can, then you're in. My personal opinion is: If you can't take the heat, then get out of the hotpot! 

Sichuan pepper smells both slightly earthy and lemon-limey, pine-foresty zingy. Its speciality is the numbing effect it has on the tongue. This is the má of the dynamic málà 麻辣 duo that is so distinct in chuan cai 川菜, the cuisine of the Sichuan area. The chili creates the là, heat. (Málà means: "numbing/spicy"). Too much huajiao is definitely overkill (!) but a little even in a Western dish like meatballs can add distinction and flair. One of my most delightful taste experiences was a fantastic creme caramel flavoured with just a touch of Sichuan pepper. The richness of the cream, sugar and egg in the dessert cut out the tingling sensation, leaving only the unique flavour. I remember my table partner Cecilia Lindqvist and I looking at each other and commenting almost simultaneously, "I'm going to steal this idea!" (The meal was at Sigtunahöjden).

Sichuan pepper actually belongs neither to the Piperum pepper family or chili pepper family. According to Wikipedia it is: The outer pod of the tiny fruit of a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylum. Some cookbooks refer to it as fagara or prickly-ash. Its Chinese name, huājiāo (花椒) means "flower pepper". A lesser known name is "mountain pepper", shānjiāo (山椒) which belies its natural habitat, high up in the mountainous areas of Westeren Sichuan. One summer I had the delightful experience of wandering through groves of huajiao trees in the Danba area. It was peak harvesting season and the Tibetan and Qiang ladies of the house were out on chairs and ladders deftly picking the peppers clusters. The small fruits were bright red and the air was suffused with the lemony scent of fresh, tangy huajiao. 

Chili peppers (lajiao in standard Chinese or haijiao in Sichuan dialect) are the fruit of Capsicum plants, which are members of the nightshade family (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes etc) Although most Chinese that you ask will swear that chili peppers are native to China, they both originated in the New World and were introduced into the country with early Portuguese traders along the southern China coast. The chilis used in Sichuan cooking are most often the smaller fruits, red in colour and sun-dried. Fresh peppers are also used and bell peppers that are either red (sweet) or green (hot).

Chilis are rich in Vitamin C (and potassium, magnesium and iron), one of the reasons that I believe that eating Sichuan food regularly keeps me from getting a cold. Sichuanese especially like to eat hot and spicy dishes in the summertime, thinking that a good sweat cools the body. (On the other hand they are also high in carotene, which improves eyesight, which is definitely not true in my case, I just ordered a new pair of glasses!).

Not only does this fantastic duo pack a wonderful punch and tingle on the palate they are also pleasing to the eye, with their delightful red accents. Note! One of the reasons Sichuan cooking tastes so different (and so MUCH BETTER) here in Sichuan is the poor quality of the huajiao used in restaurants around the world, it has to be relatively fresh or the dish will lack zing and taste only hot and dusty.

Från På kinesiskt vis (Det kinesiska köket) ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn, Ica bokförlag:

Maten från Sichuan (chuancai) är känd över hela världen och är ett av Kinas allra populäraste kök. Vissa säger, med all rätta, att det är landets godaste kök. Maten är oerhört smakrik och ofta bedövande stark. Det som skapar den unika Sichuansmaken är en speciell kombination av två smaksensationer: ma, "bedövande", och la, "chilistark". Mala-effekten skapas av Sichuanpeppar (ma) och rikliga mängder chilipeppar (la) gärna kombinerat med syrlig ingefära och generösa mängder vitlök. Sichuanpeppar (huajiao på kinesiska, lat. Zanthoxylum piperitum) är inte en äkta pepparsort utan kommer från familjen vinruteväxter. Denna aromatiska krydda doftar både citrus och anis och har en mycket distinkt förmåga att "bedöva" tungan samtidigt som det sticker lite. Man ska egentligen inte äta kornen utan bara låta dem krydda maten. 

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