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Do you eat dried Sichuan chili peppers?

Got take out from Shangri La in Belmont last night and tried the kung pao chicken, after recently enjoying the kung pao shrimp and kung pao beef. Each is slightly different as far as what veggies are used, but all feature the peanuts and lots of dried red chili peppers, the long, dark red ones frequently used in Sichuan food. By lots, I mean around three dozen or so. Of course I've had other dishes in other restaurants (such as Zoe's, which I hope returns soon) with equally large amount of these dried chilis, but last night I started wondering what other Chinese food fans do with them.
Now I like hot food and I enjoy the heat and flavor the peppers impart. But I don't eat them. Maybe one. And that's enough. More than enough. A little too hot and chewy for me. After downing one I do what everyone else in my family does: push the peppers to the side and throw them out when we clean our plates.
But I feel a little guilty. There are so many peppers in the dish it seems like they are meant to be consumed. Are they an acquired taste? Or are they supposed to be tossed? And if that's the case, then why put so many of them in a dish? Wouldn't, say, a dozen do the trick?
After many years and many discarded peppers, I'd really like to know.

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  1. The recipes I've seen for this type of dish indicate that the peppers are there for flavoring but not to be eaten as such. My general rule of thumb is that fresh peppers get eaten, dried whole ones do not.

    But I'd be curious to hear from some Chinese 'hounds whether that is in fact traditional practice or not.

    5 Replies
    1. re: BobB

      The first time I went to China, I had lunch with a bunch of coworkers. One of the dishes was kung pao chicken. I went to take a bite of a pepper (which I sometimes do-- I don't eat them all, but one or two is fine) and about 5 of them lunged at me to stop my eating it :).

      I actually asked if they'd eat them (i.e. were they "protecting" the foreigner), and all of them said no, they don't eat them.

      That's just an anecdote, though-- not a representative sample!

      1. re: cmd

        <I actually asked if they'd eat them (i.e. were they "protecting" the foreigner), >

        You are not suppose to eat them. You can, but then you look like a foreigner if you do. :P

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          I look like a foreigner anyway (as in, outside of Shanghai people take my picture with them :) ). But when I went back a couple of years later, I received compliments on my improved chopstick skills from one of those coworkers. :P.

          1. re: cmd

            <as in, outside of Shanghai people take my picture with them :)>

            I think that only works if you are a GOOD LOOKING foreigner.

        2. re: cmd

          Funny - that reminds me of the first time I was in Taiwan, at a business lunch. I was the only Westerner at the table, and all the dishes were on a huge lazy susan. One dish got to me, and looked interesting, a plate of sliced green chilies accented by small dried fish (about 1" long), in some sort of sauce. As I reached to take some, several of my colleagues lunged at me to stop me - they eat it, but assumed it was too hot for Western palates. I smiled, spooned some up and chowed it down quite happily. I gained some face that day.

      2. I used to snack on those dried red peppers after all the other food was gone. I really like the crunchy, smoky, spicy experience.

        After a few too many "days after", though, I have given up on this habit.

        5 Replies
            1. re: Veggo

              My head wants to, but my ass says no, thanks.

                1. re: linguafood

                  I know how you feel, literally.

            2. I haven't noticed people eating many of the dried peppers here or in China, but I always nibble a few bites out of mine.


              1. We call the little pieces "lurkers" :) We very carefully pick them all out, or what we think is all, and then occasionally a little pieces disguises itself as a little piece of pork and sneaks in. Gets our attention real fast.

                1. Sichuan peppers as in 'facing heaven'? these are not long. 'facing heaven' is plump and smells nice. used whole for flavouring.

                  i like them (both fresh and dried) and do eat a few in the food but it is impossible to eat them all. i noticed (in China) they are left behind.

                  i on the other hand eat the peppercorns as a snack. a Sichuanese family with whom i shared a soft sleeper to Chengdu thought it was hilarious and strange to eat the peppercorns. so now i know they don't eat them as a snack.

                  1. Just understand that the chillies (an import from the New World that provide the heat of capsaicin) are different from Sichuan pepper (which is the seed of a fruit of native Chinese plant, and which provides characteristic numbing rather than chilli-heat). The dried chillies are not very edible IMO; in Mexican cooking, they would be pureed before ingesting, for example.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Karl S

                      Is anyone really unclear on the difference between itty-bitty Sichuan peppercorns and big honking dried and fresh Capsicum chilies in Sichuan cooking? I think it would be pretty hard to eat around Sichuan peppercorns in most dishes that include them.


                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                        Hard to eat around them in dishes like Chonqing Chicken at Sichuan Garden. I generally push a lot of them to the side, but end up eating quite a few, especially when they're chopped, like this:


                        (CH wouldn't let me attach the picture today, not sure why.)

                    2. I don't think you need to eat them. I don't know about you, but most of time these dried red peppers are not very spicy. The hot oil and cooking process should have extracted most of the heat from the pepper into the food. The pepper should be spicy, but no spicier than the rest of the dish -- this is my experience.

                      <There are so many peppers in the dish it seems like they are meant to be consumed. >

                      No, they are not. They were there during the cooking, that's all. I usually don't touch them.

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        Here's a picture of one of our favorite dishes at a local place. Fish fillets in hot chili oil. The first few minutes are spent picking them out and putting them aside :)

                        1. re: c oliver

                          <Fish fillets in hot chili oil.>

                          Ah, I like that dish. Well, I like many, but this one is relatively on my top.

                          Here, I find this photo from internet, and I think this is how these dishes often look like -- a bunch of dried red peppers. I tried not to eat them, but sometime I am just too lazy and ended up chewing one or two along the way.

                          Szechuan cuisine can be confusing. You are not supposed to eat all the red peppers (especially when they are the dried ones), but you are supposed to eat the Szechuan peppercorns. As for the oil/sauce, you certainly do not need to finish drinking it. I do sometime put some of the sauce in my rice and eat it.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            What photo from the internet? You forgot to include.

                            We put the rice and the fish (and the other ingredients) in our rice bowl and spoon over the oil/sauce. Makes the rice terribly and wonderfully 'gooshy' and we 'stick it up.

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                Well, now, that's just insane! If that arrived at my table, I don't know what I'd do. Get rid of the chopsticks and bring on the tweezers. Or die :)

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  That looks like one of the standard dishes we order. Love it.

                            1. re: c oliver

                              If eating with chopsticks, a person picks up each piece of food to eat it. So why the need to pick out the chiles beforehand?
                              IMO, tedious and a little rude to the chef/host.

                            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              The fact that they are dried makes the skin nearly indigestible and very resistant to chewing, but I like to suck the sauce from them which draws some of the heat usually brings some of the dish's flavor with it.

                            3. Dried red chilli peppers in kung pao dishes are not meant to be eaten. Toss them.

                              1 Reply
                              1. To ease your guilt, you could do as I sometimes do. I rinsed them off and cover with oil, to make hot chili oil. Store in the fridge.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: BeefeaterRocks

                                  I think it depends on ones tolerance for downstream heat.

                                  For me the seeds cause unpleasantness the nest day. I keep dried chilli peppers in the house and break off the tip, drop out the seeds and then crush/chop the dried pepper into flakes and add them to food.

                                2. If here chopped up relatively small I eat them. If they're whole I'll eat a couple but that's it. The shoe leather texture is off putting

                                  1. There are a lot of cuisines that use whole spices that flavor the dish but that are mostly best left on the plate. This is one such case. A similar question arises with cuisines (e.g. Middle Eastern, Indian) that use whole cardamom pods, cloves, etc (e.g. as discussed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/865419 ).

                                    Here in USA, I think many people expect to eat everything on the plate (ok, except bones, shells) so we get surprised by the flavor explosions (a few of which can be good, but too many not so much).

                                    6 Replies
                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Yes, bay leaf is an interesting example -- I generally pull them out (because they are easy to see and only a few of them). But if they get left in, people have no problem spotting them and setting them aside. On the other hand, it's understandable that people sometimes get surprised with less familiar cuisines. But here in USA, kung pao chicken is certainly not in the "less familiar" category. So it's interesting that people still aren't sure about whether or not to eat the dried chiles.

                                        1. re: drongo

                                          They learn after the first one!

                                          1. re: Veggo

                                            Btw, the Kung Pao Chicken recipe by Cook's Illustrated (not a source of authentic Chinese recipes, I know!) specifies that half the dried chiles be crumbled and half be left whole. So with that recipe (which I have made, and it's quite good) you're going to eat at least half of the chiles (unless you pick out all the little crumbled pieces -- good chopsticks practice!).

                                            1. re: drongo

                                              Sounds perfect. I like crumbled de arbol chiles as well.

                                          2. re: drongo

                                            My original post concerned a non-standard kung pao with a whopping amount of whole chilis. Not comparable to finding a bay leaf or two. When you get a dish and a good quarter of it is dried chilis, you start to wonder what you are supposed to do with such an abundance.

                                      2. They're discarded. Only masochists eat these.

                                        We owned a Sichuan-style restaurant. The first sign of a novice is the "chili-head" who goes ahead and eats the dried peppers whole or in part.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: shaogo

                                          Yippee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Glad to know I'm not a novice :) Thanks, shaogo.

                                          1. re: shaogo

                                            Really? Huh.

                                            As I wrote earlier, I like(d) to snack on a few of those when the rest of the food was gone. I really like their kick and smoky flavor.

                                            The only thing that prevents me from continuing to do so is the aftermath.

                                          2. have the confidence to eat what you want to eat and how you want to eat

                                            1. Yeah, if they have been mixed with peanuts, coated with sesame seeds then deep fried, I eat them with pleasure.

                                              1. I eat them, but I have a really high tolerance for Asian spices (oddly, my tolerance for spices used in Mexican cooking isn't quite as high; they're different somehow) - I'm half Korean and grew up on really spicy food.

                                                When we have our annual chili cook-off at work, I use them (and crushed red pepper) for a really spicy chili. About 4 of my coworkers eat the peppers and everyone else tries not to get too many in their bowls when they serve themselves.

                                                You could always just ask for less peppers if you're just throwing them away. It seems like a waste to me too.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: JenBak

                                                  A former neighbor was Korean and "really spicy food" is an understatement. Some of the soups they made were extremely tasty but OMG the heat :-)

                                                2. Just for the record, those "small red Sichuan peppers" you guys are talking about are also called bird peppers, and while they are used whole for seasoning in Chinese/Sichuan dishes, in fact are the same pepper that is ground and sold as cayenne pepper. They BURN!!!

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                                    Actually, these are not bird peppers we're talking about. Those are most often used fresh in Thai cuisine.

                                                    1. re: linguafood

                                                      A lot of Pizza shops have dried / ground / flaked Chile peppers in shakers on the tables. I buy the whole dried version at an Asian store, break off an end to let the seeds out and flake the rest. Much hotter, more flavor and no down stream issues without the seeds.

                                                    2. re: Caroline1

                                                      I found a pretty comprehensive list online and it looks like what we call Sichuan peppers are Tien Tsin peppers. The bird's eye peppers and a whole bunch of other peppers are also listed.


                                                      Going by the pics, the dried peppers I have at home are definitely the Tien Tsin peppers.

                                                      1. re: JenBak

                                                        Yes. The dried red peppers used in Sichuan cooking aren't the same as bird peppers.

                                                        I have a bag at home, too. Love their crunchy, spicy smokiness, whereas you won't find me 'snacking' on chopped up fresh bird peppers.

                                                    3. The only thing I can think of that I have eaten with these dried peppers is the Wok Charred Beef (formerly of PF Chang). Not a chili left on my plate...every time. I don't think they intended for them to be eaten...

                                                      1. Traditionally, Chinese people don't eat them because they are rather tough, but there's nothing wrong with eating them along with the food it was served with if you can handle the heat. On a healthy note, they are good for you, but I wouldn't eat 3 dozen that was in the dish :)

                                                        Link: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tn...

                                                        1. Yes I did. It's been twenty plus years and I'm still hearing about it from family.I was trying to show off. A foolish maneuver !