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.
"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 piperitum is 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.
Ignoring the insect interlude, we sample some tangy, cold Sichuan noodles and garlic pickles for starters. An entrée of double-cooked pork is actually made from thick pieces of bacon with scallions, onions and garlic, and it tastes spectacular. The "vegetable trio in garlic sauce" comes with big pieces of eggplant, string beans and baby bok choy served in a pungent brown sauce, and it's also stunning. But everybody's favorite is a whole fried fish in thick, spicy black bean sauce.
Since I'd already sampled the ma po tofu, which carries the three-pepper symbol on the menu designating extreme heat, I'd encouraged the tofu lover at the table to try the yuan-yang tofu, which has the two-pepper symbol, making it the second-spiciest tofu dish on the menu. Little did I know that yuan-yang tofu is actually a mix of white tofu cubes and a different sort of cube: a dark brown one that I recognize as congealed pork blood, a delicacy I've previously sampled at Fung's Kitchen.
I'm unsure how to proceed. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the tofu-eater grab a dark cube in her chopsticks. If I tell her it's pig's blood, there isn't much chance she'll even taste the stuff. And who knows -- maybe she'll like it, so I keep my mouth shut.
After she pushes the bowl away, I ask her what she thinks of the dish. She assumes the dark cubes are some kind of aged or fermented tofu and says she doesn't like them. She isn't too happy when I tell her what she's been eating. Disgusted, she accuses me of making her eat pork blood for my own sick amusement.
I plead innocent. But she'd be even more disgusted if she knew that there was another cockroach attempting to enter her purse, which she's placed on the floor beside her chair. I'm trying to look her in the eye to deny her charges of deception, while surreptitiously dislodging the cockroach from her handbag with the toe of my sneaker.
Disgusted now myself, I rush the paying of the bill and wave off the waitress's offer to pack up the leftovers. There's a plastic bag on the floor that I used to bring in a four-pack of Heineken tallboys. I pick it up and discover yet another cockroach (or maybe it's the one from the handbag, I can't be sure). I squash the bug beneath my shoe, leaving it splattered on the floor beside our table.
So, what can I say about Sichuan Cuisine? Can I recommend a restaurant with a cockroach problem? I call Chirag Bhatt, division manager for Houston's Bureau of Consumer Health Services, for advice. He is philosophical. "Cockroaches are pretty common in Houston restaurants," he says. "Restaurants are supposed to take measures to eliminate them. But there is no such thing as 100 percent compliance." Still, make no mistake: When cockroaches come into contact with food, they can cause illness.
Cockroaches spend most of their time in dark cracks, Bhatt observes. So when you see them out in broad daylight, it means there's a lot of them. The question to ask about a restaurant with cockroaches is "Are they doing the best they can?" It appears to me that Sichuan Cuisine needs to do more.
I'll always have a fondness for Sichuan Cuisine as the first place I ever sampled Sichuan peppercorns, although now that they're legal, I'm sure they'll be turning up in Chinese restaurants all over town. And there's no denying that the cooking is wonderful, as long as you like orange grease.
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