OK, by now, you’re probably thinking, “enough travel photos already, Stormy! Let’s get back to the food.”
Well, I have a recipe for you. It’s not my own. But it is pretty delicious and inspired by the Sichuan peppers I ran across in China.
Sichuan peppers, if you haven’t had them, are an interesting experience. I won’t say flavor, simply because that is too simple a word for what you feel when you bite into one of the delicate pepper husks.
Initially, your taste buds struggle to identify what they are tasting. Tangy like green cardamom and lime, but peppery, as well, Sichuan pepper has a flavor all its own. A light chew results in a stronger burst of flavor and an unexpected numbing of the area of your mouth immediately surrounding the peppercorn.
Eat too much of it and your mouth is overwhelmed by the pungent taste and tingle; no other foods can compete until the sensation dies away and your mouth regains its composure.
Before we knew its name, we took to calling it “numb tongue.” It turns out that the Chinese have a very similar nick name for it.
What exactly is Sichuan Pepper?
Sichuan pepper (also called Szechuan pepper) isn’t spicy and it isn’t pepper. It is related to the citrus family – possibly the reason behind its unusual flavor. The husk – which looks like a reddish flower – is what is eaten, not the bitter seed, which is removed. And, in its ground form, it is one of the five ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder, which adds sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty flavors to a dish.
Toasting it brings out the essential oils and heightens the flavor.
Adding it to dishes in whole form at the last minute preserves its taste, making it shine as a core ingredient. Grinding it mellows out the numbing effect.
Blending it with one or more of these other ingredients is delicious: ginger, star anise, black pepper, nutmeg, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, and chilies.
Beyond the Great Wall: Recipe and Travels in The Other China
The only Chinese cookbook with loads of pictures (which is how I prefer cookbooks) at my local library was called Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China…the other China just happened to be where we travelled.
The book – part travelogue, part recipe and food – is filled with recipes from an array of China’s ethnic minorities from along the Silk Road, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and other areas in the far reaches of China. And, it includes numerous recipes that use Sichuan peppercorns.
The recipe I chose to try? A simple spice-rubbed roast pork with just 6 ingredients. I doubled the recipe and it took twice as long to cook, but it was worth the wait. The flavors are rich and the spiced pork tasted best right out of the oven, unlike many dishes that taste better the next day.
Sichuan peppers are so unusual, I’m not sure there is a substitute that would replicate the flavor well. That said, you could try a little ground green cardamom and white or black pepper in this dish to add some tanginess.
Lisu Spice-Rubbed Roast Pork
- 2 Tbsp lard or bacon grease
- 1.5 pounds boneless pork butt or loin
- 2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (ground and bottled works fine)
- 1½ tsp pan-toasted Sichuan peppercorns
- ½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 tsp salt
- Pan toast the Sichuan pepper to heighten their flavor. Pan toasting the Sichuan peppercorns also brings out the essential oils.
- Place toasted, whole Sichuan peppercorns, ground nutmeg and black pepper (preferably fresh-ground), and salt into a mortar, spice mill, or food processor.
- Grind spices together to create your rub.
- Break out your bacon grease or lard to help add fat back into a well-trimmed roast. Place roasting pan in oven at 350 and add 2 Tbsp of the fat to the pan to melt it.
- Rinse and pat the roast dry. Using your fingers, rub the spice blend evenly over the roast.
- Place pork roast into hot roast pan. Spoon some of the melted fat over the top and coat the roast evenly.
- Return pan to oven and cook until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F (~50 min for 1.5 pounds; add time for larger cuts), periodically basting the roast with the fat.
- When done, remove pork roast from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.