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Photo by Tasha Tupa

I’ve often heard food referred to as a drug, or at least as a drug-like addiction. I can relate, but besides the notorious psilocybin mushrooms eaten purely for recreational purposes, I know of only one other food item makes you wonder what is going on in your body, and particularly wonder why your mouth is so delightfully and comfortably numb.  It is the Szechuan peppercorn.

These ain’t your grandma’s peppercorns. Similar to black and other colored peppercorns you see at the supermarket, Szechuan (or Sichuan) peppercorns are dried berry husks, in this case from the prickly ash tree. Unlike those peppercorns, only the husk is used and they do not contain any spicy chemicals. But that’s not to say that they don’t pack a very interesting punch. In lieu of burning your tongue with spiciness, these little babies taste a bit lemony and nutty, and literally numb your nerve endings. In fact, in the Sichuan region of China where they are common, they are often given as an anesthetic to people with toothaches. They, as is the case with the following recipe, are often paired with hot chilies to give the eater a very unique and quite heady food experience. These guys can be cooked whole, toasted and ground, dry-ground like black pepper, or made into oils and sauces. Incorporated into this recipe, it is a taste sensation that I’ve never experienced before, and can’t wait to have again.

This gentleman may be having a heady food experience.

It’s hard to convey  in words the feeling that the peppercorns produce, but in his famed and revered science book, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGhee writes, “They produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools [the chemical component responsible for this reaction] appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” This sensation is called parasthesia, a word also used to describe the “pins and needles” feeling associated with a body part “falling asleep”.

Beside their effects on the body, these little tiny grenades of flavor and feeling have another thing in common with many illicit substances; they were forbidden by the US government. From 1986 until 2005 Szechuan peppercorns were banned from being imported into the United States because they’ve been known to carry citrus canker, a bacterial disease that could potentially devastate fruit and citrus crops. Now all product imported must be heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the canker. That doesn’t mean that they’re easy to acquire, though. After a check of all of this city’s fine (no sarcasm) Asian markets and higher-end grocers yielded no results, I had to resort to doing things the good old fashioned way: the internet. Amazon.com gave me seemingly endless options. Being a bargain shopper, I bought a walloping 8 ounce bag because it was cheaper by volume, but that’s enough of the stuff to make the the following recipe at least 50 times over. So, if you’d like to try this without the commitment, email me and I will gladly give you enough to make one good batch of Gung Bao Chicken or pork. Side note: I also bought my dried chilies on amazon.com a few weeks earlier. They may be a little easier to find locally but I wouldn’t assume.

Now to the meat of the matter: the recipe. Never heard of Gung Bao chicken? Neither had I until my Chef friend, Miles Prescott, introduced it to me. It’s a traditional Chinese dish that has been bastardized over and over again for American palettes, à la Kung Pao chicken. The two dishes are now hardly recognizable as distant cousins. The version that is totally ubiquitous at buffets and take-out joints across America is toned down in terms of spiciness, does not contain the Szechuan peppercorns, may contain more vegetables, and is your typical MSG-and-cornstarch bomb that we’ve all come to expect out of those little white fold-up boxes.

I can’t take much credit for this, as it is a slightly modified version of this recipe. I increased the number of dried Thai Chilies by two because I love to sweat, and I did. The two peppers the original recipe calls for is probably plenty for most. I also doubled the garlic, because…well I don’t think I need to explain myself when it comes to garlic. In future versions I may crush the peppercorns and add them towards the end of cooking. The girlfriend didn’t love the crunch of the whole husks so I think crushing will be an acceptable compromise while still maintaining the buzz-like effect of this absolutely crucial ingredient. Also of note is the use of “Light” soy sauce. Don’t confuse this with the lower-sodium soy sauce that you see at sushi restaurants now. Light soy sauce has a different taste than your run of the mill Kikkoman table sauce, and can be found at all of the local Asian markets. Regular soy sauce could theoretically be used but will alter the taste of the dish and increase its saltiness. I do not recommend.

GUNG BAO CHICKEN

INGREDIENTS:
-1/3 cup unsalted peanuts
-1 pound (or a little more) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
-1 tablespoon cornstarch
-5 tablespoons light soy sauce
-2 tablespoons vegetable or un-roasted peanut oil
-1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
-4 dried red chilies, roughly chopped or crushed
-4 garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced

NAME THAT MOVIE!!

-1-inch knob ginger root, peeled and very thinly sliced
-4 scallions, trimmed and roughly chopped

DIRECTIONS:
1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the peanuts and gently toast the peanuts, shaking the pan occasionally, until they’re a beautiful golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the peanuts to a plate to cool.

2. Meanwhile, place the chicken, cornstarch, and half the soy sauce in a large bowl and gently toss until all of the chicken is well coated. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes.

3. Heat a wok over medium heat and add the oil. Once the oil is hot, remove the wok from the heat and throw in the Szechuan peppercorns and dried red chilies. Stir continuously 20 to 30 seconds, until the chilies start to turn light brown in color.

4. Place the wok over medium-high heat then add the chicken. Fry 2 to 3 minutes, until it just starts to turn golden. Then add the garlic, ginger, scallions, and peanuts. Stir-fry constantly until the chicken is cooked through and tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the remaining soy sauce over the chicken, toss well, and serve immediately.

***NOTES***
-Be careful during step 3. The first go-round I let my oil get hot enough to see wisps of smoke rising from the pan, per the usual technique, but the chilies and peppercorns scorched to a dark brown/black after only 15 seconds or so.

-As with most recipes, this one is for cooking on a gas range. If you are so unfortunate enough to be using an electric stove-top, just be patient, or join the rest of the civilized world and switch to gas. You’ll never look back.

Photo by Tasha Tupa

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