I was surprised to learn that what we call Sichuan* Pepper (huajiao 花椒) is the only spice that is truly indigenous to China. Of course the Chinese cultivate and use many spices, but they all originated in other parts of Asia. Even Star Anise which is much associated with Chinese cooking originally comes from Vietnam. Actually, compared with India, Malaysia, Thailand and other Asian countries, the Chinese use very little in the way of spices, and that distinguishes their food culture.
The first thing you need to know about Sichuan Pepper is that it is NOT a pepper at all. It is the dried seedpod of a variety of Prickly Ash tree (Zanthoxylum simulans),
and it does not add a peppery heat to food, it gives a unique mouth tingling, numbing sensation which the Chinese call ‘mala 麻辣‘ and which many people find quite addictive. The famous food guru Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking says: “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). ” Several exhaustive studies have been done as to why this is, and if you really, really want to know more read this.
Sichuan Pepper is used in many Chinese dishes – particularly those from Sichuan Province (what a surprise!) – either as whole berries or ground into a powder.
It is also one of the components of Chinese Five Spice Powder (wu xiang fen 五香粉 ),
Here is a recipe which I often make because it is cheap, easy, takes no time at all, and is ideal finger food when watching a film on TV! Kids love it – always a bonus. The wings are delicious when hot from the oven, but also good cold for a picnic or in a lunch-box.
FINGER LICKING GOOD CHINESE CHICKEN WINGS
24 chicken wings (cut off wing tips with sharp knife and keep them for stock). 2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 teaspoons soy sauce 2 teaspoons honey 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (NOT olive oil)
Pre-heat oven to 220C
Rub the wings with the Five Spice powder. Set aside for 10 mins. Mix together the garlic, soy sauce, honey and oil. Pour it over the wings, and mix so that they are completely covered. Put the wings into a shallow oven proof dish or roasting pan. Roast in the oven for approx 20 minutes.
Tip on to a big platter and hand round with lots of paper napkins or pieces of kitchen towel to wipe sticky fingers.
They will vanish so fast you will be amazed (double the recipe next time!).
* Sichuan is the correct pinyin (romanised) Mandarin spelling of what was previously spelled Szechwan/Szechuan etc. Before pinyin was developed and standardised, many Chinese words were phonetically translated over 100 years ago using the Wade-Giles method, and that is why some people outside China still use the old spellings which are not really accurate.