When it comes to food shopping, especially in ethnic markets, I'm not easily defeated. Send me on a mission to find the most obscure ingredient; I won't let you down.
I don't speak Chinese, or Spanish, or Italian or Japanese, but I have mastered the arts of pointing and miming, and my skill at drawing little sketches of ingredients on scrap paper from my pocketbook is improving.
I smile and shrug, ask other shoppers for help, point and mime all over again, and cruise slowly up and down the aisles, back and forth, until I find whatever it is I'm looking for.
Works every time -- except the first time I went shopping for Szechuan peppercorns.
I looked and cruised, mimed and smiled, pointed and sketched, and still came up empty. And it wasn't until much later that I learned why; between 1968 and 2005, the US had banned the importation of Szechuan peppercorns.
They're easy to find now, in Asian markets and from online sources. And they add a flavor like no other, a combination of lemon, bitter and tang. There's really no substitute, but Szechuan peppercorns are one of the authentic ingredients without which your Chinese cooking simply will not taste like the real thing.
What are Szechuan peppercorns?
The berries of a deciduous prickly ash shrub; in other words, it's not a pepper at all. In some older cookbooks, it's called fagaro. The flavor resides in the shell, or husk; the small black seed inside usually is discarded, as it imparts a gritty texture when cooked.
How/where to store:
In a jar on the spice rack for up to three months; in the freezer for up to one year.
More facts about Szechuan peppercorns on The Perfect Pantry:
Szechuan peppercorns (Recipe: salt and pepper prawns)
Spicy green beans with ginger and garlic
Adapted from a recipe in Everyday Chinese: A collection of over 100 essential recipes, this quick and easy side dish packs quite the wallop, but you can tone it down by omitting the fresh chile pepper. Don't overcook the beans; you'll love the crunch. Serves 4.
2 tsp peanut or canola oil
1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
1 fresh Thai chile pepper, sliced into very thin rings
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 thin slices of fresh peeled ginger root
2 scallions, trimmed, cut diagonally into thin slices
8 oz green beans, trimmed and cut diagonally into 3-4 pieces
Pinch of sea salt
Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the peppercorns, and fry for 15 seconds (be careful; they will start to pop and splatter). Immediately add Thai chile, garlic, ginger and scallions; stir fry for another 15 seconds. Add the beans and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, stirring or flipping the pan frequently, until the beans are just barely cooked. Sprinkle with sea salt, and serve.
Other recipes that use Szechuan peppercorns:
Spicy Szechuan peppercorn chicken, from My Kitchen Snippets
Sichuan peppercorn tenderloin steak, from Closet Cooking
Szechuan peppercorn ice cream, from The GastroGnome
Ma po tofu, from Wandering Chopsticks
Ants on a tree, from Roots and Grubs
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