My acupuncturist friend Simon came for lunch the other day, and one of the dishes I cooked was that old favourite mapo doufu (Pock-Marked Old Woman’s beancurd). For some reason we ended up talking about Sichuan pepper, and Simon mentioned that he had some stocks in his pharmacy. I doubted that it would be as zingy as the best stuff, so I sent him home with a sample of the pepper I use (a gift from my chef friend Yu Bo), with strict instructions to try his regular pepper first, and then try chewing a bit of mine. His comments, copied below with his permission from an email he sent me yesterday, are a good illustration of what it’s like trying fantastic Sichuan pepper for the first time!
“I tried the Hua Jiao the next day and the experience was truly remarkable; I fished out some peppers from my pharmacy and chomped for a few seconds introducing the fragrant oils to my taste buds…..the result was a flavour that resembled the vibrancy of a shrivelled balloon long forgotten from a distant party, forlorn and wilted. Then I produced 4 small fruits, innocuous in appearance but with an altogether more forthright, aromatic fragrance. For continuities sake I repeated the chomp, the beckoning of saliva to carry the flavour to the somewhat disappointed taste buds and then…..the dragon seemed to stir in the East from it’s winter slumber and the awakening yawn sent a fiery blast rippling like molten lava around the edges of my tongue and before I could fully rejoice in the New Year fireworks a dozen giant centipedes in heavy workman’s boots started tap dancing on both my bottom and top lips…Wow, what a party, it carried on for at least an hour. I now truly know the difference between quality Hua Jiao and a pseudo shell of an aged pepper.”
Incidentally, I reckon the main reason for the scarcity of decent hua jiao in Chinese supermarkets is that they are mainly run by the Cantonese, who have little taste for the numbing sensation that the Sichuanese adore. Outside Sichuan, and Sichuanese restaurants abroad, Sichuan pepper is mainly used in spice mixtures, and for its medicinal qualities, so a lack of ma zinginess is not really missed.