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Chinese salt and pepper dishes: sichuan peppercorns??

I had a craving the other day, which led me to look up recipes for Chinese fried salt and pepper tofu. A lot of the ones I came across simply asked for black pepper, but that wasn't what I was looking for. Apparently, the "pepper" referred to in the name of the dish is Sichuan peppercorn. More reading turned up the fact that these were banned for decades, but that got me to thinking...

If they were banned for so long, what was I eating in all of those salt and pepper prawn/sparerib/tofu/squid/fish dishes I lovingly gobbled up in all the years it was banned? It definitely wasn't black pepper. Have all the restaurants that have been serving salt and pepper __fill in the blank__ been using Sichuan peppercorns all along despite the ban? My tongue is craving the flavor, but before I break into my peppercorn stash, I want to be sure it's going to be the flavor I'm expecting it to be.

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  1. If your mouth felt numb, you were probably eating sichuan peppercorns... availability and legality are different beasts.

    I didn't know about the ban until a few years ago, but it explained a lot. I used to look for them in Manhattan's Chinatown, and shop keepers would show no recognition of what I was asking for. I would find them on the shelves under one new name or another (e.g., prickly-ash), so I assumed my denied requests were a word/language issue!

    3 Replies
    1. re: hyperbowler

      I just tested a cube of tofu, fried and topped with sichuan peppercorn salt. My mouth is definitely a bit numb, but it's also not the taste I've come to expect from salt and pepper dishes. I'm wondering if 5 spice is the secret ingredient, instead, as I don't recall ever having a numb mouth from eating a salt and pepper dish.

      1. re: spaghetina

        From what I was taught in several American based Chinese restaurants. In salt and pepper dishes the pepper is sliced hot pepper. the dish is made by lightly dusting the food in cornstarch. then you take a wok and add oil, salt, and bring to heat. Add hot pepper, usually jalapeno, and fry for 30 seconds, then add cornstarch dusted food and fry in the oil and hot pepper flavored oil until just barely cooked.

      2. re: hyperbowler

        Several years before the ban was lifted, I was lamenting not being able to get the pepercorns to a chinese coworker. He was adamant that I could easily get them in chinatown, as that's where he & his wife got them all of the time. I pointed out that he was Chinese and a native speaker, and I was white and didn't speak the language at all - *he* could buy them there, I could not.

      3. You can buy "spiced salt" at Chinese groceries which has some ground Sichuan peppercorns already mixed in. Don't know if this is allowed or just slipped in under the radar.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Teep

          I just did a search for spiced salt, and it looks like maybe that's the animal I'm searching for!

          1. re: spaghetina

            What's in spiced salt?

            The other ingredients have far too strong a flavor, so I couldn't imagine anyone using five spice powder in a "salt and pepper" dish.

            One of my cookbooks mixes black pepper, salt, and sichuan peppercorns together. I don't know if that's what you ate, but I like that mix.

          2. When I order 'salt and pepper' dishes at Cantonese restaurants, they usually don't have sichuan peppercorn in them - just red chili and salt. In fact, I can't really recall ever having a 'salt and pepper' dish (like fried shrimp or calamari) with Sichuan peppercorn in it...

            4 Replies
            1. re: Dave MP

              It sort of depends on the resturaunt. Some use black pepper, some sichuan pepper, some chili pepper (fresh or dried) and many use a combination of two or more of the above. Fried garlic is also pretty common (as a sprinkling on top). I tend to prefer either black or sichuan or a mix of the two (I'm far more senstive to the bite of capsacin than piperine or hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) (guess they discovered the active chemical in Japan as it has the Japanese name, sansho, in it) and so find high chili versions a little too hot for me.)

              1. re: Dave MP

                The Sichuan peppercorns are finely ground into a powder for salt and pepper dishes. You might not have noticed.

                1. re: Dave MP

                  i think that sichuan peppercorns aren't often used in cantonese preparations, even though sichuan peppercorns are available in the US now. i remember salt-and-pepper pork as salt, chilis, scallions, and probably white pepper?

                  1. re: Dave MP

                    also for reference, white pepper is what makes hot and sour soup hot.

                  2. It depends on the type of restaurant. Salt and pepper dishes are very common in Cantonese cooking, which almost never uses Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns aren't that spicy. They numb your tongue, lips, and mouth.

                    Although they may have been technically illegal to import into the US for years, it's not that difficult to do so (Note: I'm not advocating any such type of activity). Last year, Sandra Bullock openly admitted on national TV about how she engaged in illegal German sausage trafficking.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: raytamsgv

                      They are no longer illegal here in the US, not for a while now (5-6 years at least)

                    2. Fwiw, based on personal experience, they weren't banned for decades, so you may well have been eating Szechuan peppercorns, at least some of the time. They were indeed banned a couple of times, but only for a total of a few years, until they developed heat treatment protocols to prevent the possibility of spreading citrus canker.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: MikeG

                        Yeah, so it's fine for people who want to cook with them, though not I would imagine for anyone who wants to try to cut down on their spice bill by trying to grow thier own tree. I'm not saying anyone here would try something as bizarre as that (well, I would, but I live waay to far north to try something like that (sichuan peppercorns are sub tropical, so you'd probably need to live in S. Florida, Calfornia of Hawaii to pull it off) plus I like my skin unpuctured (they don't call the trees prickly ashes for nothing). but for anyone who was thinking about it, don't bother, pepeprcorns made safe are dead.

                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                          ...and of course, as you know, they're not really peppercorns,not the sort like those from Piper nigrum; but are just the "shells" of the fruit of a plant in the citrus family. ;-)