I Tried Three Different Kinds of Sichuan Peppercorns and I Can Finally Feel My Face Again
So much of the food I eat is passive. I mean, it's fine. I put it in my mouth, I chew, it tastes like something, and then it does various things as it moves through my body. I don't know too much about that part; it just sort of happens on its own and I don't have to fill out any forms or anything. But Sichuan peppercorns make my senses work. A bite or two into a proper bowl of mapo tofu or Dan Dan noodles and my tongue feels like it touched a downed power line. It shocks and sweats, and while I greedily inhale air through my nose to calm it all, I'm digging in for my next bite. They're not necessarily hotter than, say, black peppercorns, but they're powerful, with a distinctive numbing effect. The way they activate my senses and enhance the other flavors in a dish makes them one of my most favorite sensations on earth
So when I was (once again) wandering the aisles of one of my favorite specialty food stores and saw that there exists not just the standard Sichuan peppercorns I've become emotionally dependent upon, but green and red varieties as well, I had to buy them to see if I could possibly become even more efficiently masochistic with my meals.
My boss, fellow Sichuan peppercorn enthusiast Ryan Grim, suggested that chicken wings in the style of Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese might be the ideal testing vehicle. I agreed, both because I love Bowien's cooking and because except for chicken wings themselves, I randomly had everything required in the recipe on hand, including the tripe and mushroom powder. It was clearly fate.
I toasted three batches of the spice mixture in which the wings are dredged, identical except for the kind of peppercorn. I par-cooked and froze the wings the night before, boiled the tripe while they thawed the next morning, then fried the heck out of the whole mess in peanut oil while I toasted chiles in a dry skillet. Drain, drain, drain. Mix, mix, mix. With wings and tripe cooked to a crisp and thickly coated in the spice mixture, it was time to try them side by side—with breaks in between to breathe and let the pain die down. Ryan and Kelsey Youngman and David McCann from the Food & Wine test kitchen loaned their palates for the test.
We evaluated each batch for force and flavor. Our findings were unanimous.
Though red ranked lowest of the three for tongue-throttling force, these peppercorns were in no way gentle. The signature numbing effect proved slightly mild, but the flavor was still underpinned by the peppercorns' characteristic metallic tang, and the heat plateaued at a comfortable level—like a summer day where you definitely want to crack a window and maybe flick on a ceiling fan, but can't quite justify firing up the AC. Should you ever wish to seduce a reticent someone over to the mapo life, this would be a great gateway pepper.
Whooooo—green means go. This peppercorn started off slow, musky, and sweet, then floored it, bringing all the brash spice with little to none of the numbing effect of the standard Sichuan peppercorn, with just a ping of the metallic taste. The sting crept so deeply into my ears, I could practically hear it, and Ryan found himself on the same wavelength, saying, "It's just a bigger experience."
I exaggerate not at all when I say the sides of my tongue were still twitching like a stressed-out eyelid an hour after my first bite of the wings made with standard Sichuan peppercorns. "Immediate, full-on, like licking a battery… my whole mouth feels like a car wash," I scrawled at the time, and I'm pretty sure the thing next to it is a smiley face. I can't quite tell because I was kinda high from the endorphins—in a good way. In fact, in exactly the way I expect from a full-force, electric-tongued, Sichuan peppercorn experience. Ryan wrote, "Tingle City, USA." I'm booking a return ticket as soon as I can.