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A Sichuan peppercorn looks something like a clove. There's a tiny brown berry on top of four points and a stubby stem. My tablemates and I are eager to see what the rare spice tastes like all by itself, so we fish a few peppercorns out of the kung pao chicken at Sichuan Cuisine on Bellaire.
9114 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036-4604
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Kung pao chicken: $6.95
Ma po tofu: $5.95
Vegetable trio in garlic sauce: $5.95
Fish in black bean sauce: $12.95
Double-cooked pork: $6.95
Dan dan noodles: $1.95
"Licorice cloves black pepper, now I taste oranges," I say as I chew the curiously piquant little nodule.
"I get lemon and pepper and anise," says one of my tablemates.
I drink a glass of water, which sets the flavor kaleidoscope into motion again. Now hot and minty flavors flood my mouth. Then I panic as my tongue starts to go numb and my lips begin to tingle weirdly.
"Don't worry, that's what always happens," says my more experienced friend.
"This stuff is making my tongue hallucinate," my teenage daughter says with a laugh. "I think this is the spice from Dune." I've never read the sci-fi classic, so she begins to explain the story line.
"The spice comes from a planet guarded by giant worms," she begins. Intolerant of science fiction, I cut her off, agreeing that Sichuan peppercorns might be from another planet.
Zanthoxylum piperitumis the scientific name of a group of related plants known as Sichuan peppercorns in English. The spice is actually the bud of an Asian shrub called prickly ash. The importation of the spice into the United States was halted in 1968, when the peppercorns were included in a ban on items that might carry citrus canker. Last year, a heat treatment that eliminates canker-causing bacteria was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Sichuan peppercorns once again became legal.
A Web site called Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages says that in Chinese cooking, the peculiar tingling bite of the Sichuan peppercorn has its own unique term -- the prickly property is referred to as ma. The pungent fire of chile peppers and the tickling ma of Sichuan peppercorns combine to create a multidimensional culinary heat that's essential to many Asian cuisines and treasured by connoisseurs.
I say, "Hi, ma! Where have you been all my life?"
Kung pao chicken, with its exotic peanut-and-red-pepper sauce, has been a favorite dish of mine for the past 20 years. And now, all of a sudden, I'm tasting the real thing, made complete with Sichuan peppercorns. The flavor is ten times better than any kung pao chicken I've ever eaten. It's like you loved hot dogs all your life, and then you suddenly discovered mustard.
The kung pao chicken turns out to be the only dish we order at Sichuan Cuisine that includes the psychedelic seasoning. But all of the food is excellent. From a section of the menu called "Sichuan snacks" we try a stunningly simple dish called dan dan noodles, which tastes like spaghetti served in a chopped-peanut-and-pepper sauce. We also get the crispy onion pancake, a flaky, wafer-thin fried pastry stuffed with onions and served with a dipping sauce.
A Chinese lady at the next table is ordering for a party of six. She deals with the waitress sternly. Then I hear her talking in English to the rest of her party. So I walk over and ask her to recommend a fish dish. She points to one of the little banners pinned to the wall. When the waitress returns, I point to the banner and attempt to order it. The waitress tries to talk me out of it, but I persist.
It turns out to be a fish stew in a vinegar-pepper sauce that is quite good. Baby corn, mushrooms, snow peas and a wonderfully slick black fungus complement the large chunks of fish. But I must admit there's an awful lot of orange grease floating on top. It stains the sides of the bowl. In fact, orange grease appears to be a major component of most of the dishes we sample at Sichuan Cuisine.
There's certainly lots of it in the ma po tofu, a fabulous dish that sets squishy-soft, very bland tofu pillows afloat in a sea of incendiary red chile sauce. All the steamed rice on our plates is the same color, and as we pack up the leftovers, the same bright orange tints the white Styrofoam containers.
A week later, I'm back at Sichuan Cuisine with three more dining companions. I'm so excited about this wonderful restaurant discovery that I'm afraid I've promised them a little more than the restaurant can deliver.
Sichuan Cuisine occupies a pleasant if ordinary space in the slightly run-down Welcome Food Center on Bellaire, right beside two other Chinese restaurants and not far from half a dozen others. The dining room is outfitted with heavy-duty industrial hardware, and the walls are covered with some interesting original art. The place appears to be extremely popular with the local Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant communities.
We order lots of food, but before it arrives, one of my compatriots points to the little banners of Chinese characters pinned to the wall. It seems a small yellowish German cockroach is playing hide-and-seek behind the pieces of paper. That takes the edge off our appetites.