Spotlight on: Sichuan pepper
Posted on August 19, 2016
Sichuan pepper is integral to our cuisine here at Hutong, with many dishes using the hot spice, such as for our signature dish the Red Lantern and in our Ma La sauce. Sichuan Pepper is a key ingredient in Sichuan cooking.
Sichuan Pepper is in fact, not from the pepper plant family, it is the dried berry husks from the Prickly Ash Shrub. When dried they look similar to peppercorns and have a redddish colour to them. This shrub is particularly aromatic and is used in all sorts of dishes across Asia, for example the Japanese use the leaves as a spice as they have a citrus fragrance.
The unusual and identifying aspect of Sichuan Pepper is its numbing sensation. Recently scientists have come to the conclusion that this is to do with how our brain processes the spice. In chilli peppers capsaicin is the active ingredient, this ingredient binds to our cells in our mouth that activates the feeling of being burnt by heat. In a similar way, the Sichuan Pepper’s active ingredient binds to cells associated to touch and our brains understand it as a vibration, which creates a numbing sensation when we eat it.
The use of the Prickly Ash Shurb berries as dried spice, like peppercorns, originates from the Sichuan region, hence why it is called Sichuan Pepper. The berries are first roasted to allow for the aromatic qualities of the fruit to be released, then they are crushed or ground. Sichuan Pepper is one of the flavours in the Chinese ‘Five-spice’ mix along with star anise, clove, cinnamon, and fennel seeds. It is also a key element in the traditional Sichuan sauce ‘Ma La’ – Ma means ‘numbing’, and La means ‘spice’.
We have a wonderful Ma La beef dish on our à la carte menu, which is served on a bed of steamed aubergines. The Ma La sauce is spicy, but layered in its flavour profile which balances well with the Sichuan Pepper. Our Head Chef Bing recommends eating the aubergine last, so that it can soak up the Ma La sauce!