Have you ever tried a Szechuan peppercorn? They’re the seeds of the prickly ash tree, and a mainstay in Szechuan cooking. They’re not spicy. They have a wonderful, peppery, citrusy flavor. They also have another, very strange characteristic: they cause paresthesia, a numbing, prickly sensation in the mouth. It does this by getting tiny receptors in your tongue vibrating at 50 hertz. This is fun, and weird, and very handy if you’re eating spicy Szechuan food, because the numbing sensation allows you to eat more spicy chilis without overheating your mouth. Excellent! New employees of Geer Street Garden were always given one to try at the beginning of their employment as a sort of “cool” test and to see if they were the right kind of “wrong” to fit in with our crew. (Ah, the good old days, when we actually needed to hire people on occasion!)
Anyhoo – this weekend we’re serving the classic Szechuan dish, Kung Pao Chicken. This poor dish has been degraded for our dull American mouths over the years, so much so that at a lot of places now it’s just a standard meat & veggie stir-fry with a few peanuts sprinkled over the top. We make no claims at authenticity (there’s no such thing for us 21st century Americans, is there?), but we’ve found that in this case the old, traditional recipes are better than what we’re used to. So, it’s small chunks of chicken stir-fried with peppers, garlic, ginger, whole chili peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, scallions, and peanuts in a sauce perfectly balanced between sweet, sour, and salty. We’re serving it with steamed rice and a daikon radish cake (fluffy, mild, savory, and delicious). C’mon get you some.