Sichuan peppercorns are neither peppers nor corns. They are tiny berries which grow on the Chinese Prickly Ash tree. They belong to the citrus family and is a crucial ingredient in Ma Po Tofu and a myriad other Chinese specialties. Its use is not limited to China.
The onyx black seed is removed as it is gritty. Only the dry husk of the berry is used. When it hits your tongue Sichuan pepper gives it a small electric shock type of sensation and equally importantly it’s fragrance in cooking is spectacular. It has become one of my favourite spices.
Imagine my horror recently when I sat down to a dish of Ma Po Tofu I had made to find it full of grit. I knew it had to be the new batch of Sichuan pepper. I had powdered some for the recipe. What did I do wrong? Where did this sand come from? Wracked by guilt after all the chopping and prepping that goes into the dish I still ate it while carefully avoiding the gritty bits. Otherwise the grit would have won. Fortunately there were no guests who would have been shocked and it would have been a disaster. I survived.
This was may be five or six months ago and I have been hesitant to make any more Ma Po Tofu until the grit issue got resolved. This week I had some silken tofu glaring at me in the fridge for a week and it was time. A quick search online and I find it is the seeds that make Sichuan peppers gritty. The peppers I purchased in Chinatown were more than the husk. It contained the seeds which are as tough as stones. I did not encounter this problem with the first batch of Sichuan peppers.
So the rule is: Only the husk, not the seed. The seed is jet black, hard and onyx shiny. It could well be a gem or a bead in jewellery. However it does not belong in your Ma Po Tofu. I searched and searched to eke out a solution and there were many which I will not get into. They involved washing, drying in the sun and myriad others. Nothing however seemed to state the obvious. Which was to physically remove the seed.
I am sure there are many ways to deseed a Sichuan berry but here is one of them. I wasn’t going to go looking for them late evening in Chinatown and probably I might well have ended up with the same product with seeds in tact.
Sichuan peppers – some with seeds in them. The seeds are gritty and should not be used.
How to: Using the tip of a small paring knife open the husk. The seed will fall out. Carefully pick out the husk and set aside the seed. Its the husk that you use. The seeds are beautiful and I hate to throw them away until I find out if they have any use. However someone from China told me that the most potent part of a Sichuan peppers is in the seed. I am not yet sure I would want to try it again. May be more research is called for on the gritty seeds. Until then use only the husk.
Seeds extracted. Some of the berries were too tight to open. They too were discarded. Yet I was stunned by their Onyx-like beauty. I wonder if they are used as beads.
The rule is: Only the husk, not the seed.
There are many uses for Sichuan pepper. Here it releases a unique citrus-like fragrance in oil over medium heat, to start off Ma Po Tofu which appears below. My absolutely favourite recipe for this is here: http://thewoksoflife.com/2014/03/ma-po-tofu-real-deal/
Credits: Title is a nod to Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection entitledThere’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do.
Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 17, 2016