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Sep 3, 2008 04:24 PM

Sichuan pepper -- beware!

You know how artichoke affects your perception of flavor for some time after you eat it, and how that can screw up a wine? Well, I think the same thing goes for sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum, hua jiao). Last night I served some lovely grilled organic charolais steaks (filets), nice and browned, and rare, with a sprinkle of salt and sichuan pepper on top. The Buzet that I served with it was lovely at first ... and rapidly became thin and sour. Totally the effect of the sichuan pepper. I had rather expected its slightly rough tannins to stand up to the harsher elements of it, and leave us with the nice melding of cabernet franc/merlot/charolais/the lemony flavors of the sichuan pepper. Well, live and learn. And keep a stock of good German Pils, because that saved the day.

Anyone else have experience pairing this spice with wine? In the past I've done throwaway Côtes-du-Rhones, Gewurtztraminers, or off-dry Blauburgunders; but there wasn't much of the spice at all here, so I didn't think I was matching to it.

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  1. Sichuan peppercorns are tricky. The herculin (the numbing component) may block the perception of flavor. The bitterness of the alkaloids in the peppercorns may cancel out the nice flavors in wine, as could the fiery heat. Or all three. Thanks for the heads-up.

    1 Reply
    1. re: maria lorraine

      Yeah, I figured the numbing aspect wouldn't make Sichuan pepper containing dishes a good way to appreciate a fine wine, rather I was looking for a nice-enough wine to go along with the dish. I think you might be on to something with the alkaloid content, though. I used a light hand so there wouldn't be too much numbing sensation, and I was actually trying to maximize the aromatic-lemony notes (what those who don't like it describe as medicinal). It must have been that aspect that sucked the flavor out of the wine.

      Oh, and Sichuan pepper isn't hot/fiery. It's usually used in combination with chiles for the ma la one-two punch of tingling and heat, but I was getting my fusion on and using it as a non-hot spice.

    2. as for the spice itself and wine, IMO riesling and gewurztraminer are the best matches. Interesting that you mention beer pairing well, next time try a nice German (or american micro-brewed) WHEAT beer instead of, or along side the Pils.... I've found in tastings that wheat beers can be a tremendous matchup. I'd attribute that to the spicey/lemony/clovey flavors that a great wheat beer brings to the cuisine.

      These comments are about the spice in general, not specifically paired with a grilled steak, for which these white wines are only fair accompaniments. I just generally don't pair red wines with pepper-prominent dishes but guessing blind I would expect best success with a zinfandel or shiraz, but not saying they'd be great matches.

      Lastly as an alternative to sprinkling the pepper on top of the finished steak, it might prove better if it were part of a pre-grill marinade.

      1. I don't think I've ever tried trying a match.

        FWIW... the type of heat and spiciness of sichuan peppercorns described in chinese literally means "numbing" and is used to construct the word for anaesthesia. I think that alone has steered me away from wine as a pairing.

        1. Quite seriously, bland American beers work well. Refreshing,slightly alcoholic, and nothing lost with the numbing from the peppercorns...

          1. I have totally had this experience. IMO, I don't think there is a wine that could pair with Sichuan peppercorn. Just as you said -- as with artichokes (which make everything eaten afterwards taste sweet), Sichuan peppercorn makes food/wine eaten/drunk afterwards taste tart. Actually, Eric Asimov wrote about this very conundrum on his NYT blog a few months ago and I wrote about it on my blog, too, which also links to his post. I think you're right to stick to beer, however.


            P.S. I notice you're based in Paris -- I just moved here and am looking for good Sichuan food. Have you found any good Chinese restaurants? I tried Iris and thought it was hit/miss -- also they're not Sichuanese.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Cookingthebooks

              I can definately recommend off-dry German Blauburgunder with spicy Sichuan food, although it was a lot easier to find when I lived in Germany. Having the runner-up be beer isn't terribly inspiring ... not that I don't like beer (tout le contraire!) but I don't have a dependable supplier for German beer or wines here in Paris. So it goes ... and since I don't like Belgian beers with food, at least the ones we get easily here ... I guess I'll be stockpiling my German Pils and ... maybe trying young Beaujolais?

              As for Chinese food, it might not be a bad idea to start a thread over on the France board to collect things in one place. There are a couple of pretty good places nearby M° Belleville, one particularly good Cantonese place that I tried to find with Google Earth but just got myself turned around. Look for the place with delicious looking duck in the window, and order the pattes de canard, they were great. You do have to be careful, though, and look what the Chinese folks are ordering, because even the good places have "European-friendly" dishes on the menu. I went to a pretty decent Sichuan place somewhat nearby Frères Tang, and although I could find it again, I can't say exactly where it was. Good reason for a reference thread, methinks.

              1. re: tmso

                Thanks, I'll have to try the German wine you recommend next time!

                I will start another thread on Chinese restaurants over on the France board... maybe I'll do a bit of research first myself. Though after four years of living in Beijing I am very, very picky about Chinese food. Hopefully we'll find some gems!