Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chicken with Sichuan peppercorns

This aromatic dish is from Grace Young's cookbook Breath of a Wok. It uses Sichuan peppercorns, also prominent in dan dan noodles. I probably haven't talked about Sichuan pepper enough. These dark red peppercorns should be roasted in a wok to bring out their flavor — just heat them up dry in the wok until they are slightly brown and fragrant — and then crushed in a mortar or spice grinder. It's a culinary cliche to say something is doing a dance in your mouth, but in the case of Sichuan pepper it is true. It's hard to explain the tingling, numbing sensation to somebody who hasn't tried it. The Mandarin word for Sichuan pepper heat, "ma," is the same word used to describe anesthesia and pins and needles. Far gentler yet in a way more startling than chilli heat, Sichuan pepper spice is intensely pleasurable. Well, to me. John's coworker's Chinese wife hates Sichuan food, says it's like little bombs going off in her mouth.

Notice how in this recipe the chicken is supposed to be cut in small cubes and the garlic, ginger and scallion sliced to match. The Chinese consider it sloppy to serve a stir-fry without uniform cuts (see above), but my chicken thighs were all misshapen, and I have neither the drive nor the knife skills to get too fussed.

1. Cut 12 ounces of chicken thigh meat into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine the chicken, 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine, 1 tsp. cornstarch, and a sprinkling of white pepper in a bowl.

2. In a second bowl, mix 2 T. chicken broth, 1 T. Chinkiang black vinegar, 2 tsp. sesame oil, 1 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. chilli oil, and 2 more tsp. rice wine.

3. Slice some garlic, ginger and scallions all into thin slices. Roast 1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns and grind them to a powder.

4. Heat the wok over high heat, then add a bit of peanut oil, 8 small red dried chillis and the chicken meat. Cook undisturbed for one minute, letting the chicken begin to brown. Then stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes until the chicken is brown. Transfer to a plate.

5. Add the garlic, ginger, scallions and Sichuan pepper to the wok and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Return the chicken to the wok. Stir the sauce mixture and swirl it in. Stir-fry 30 seconds until the sauce thickens slightly and serve over white rice. Feeds 2.

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