What it is: Known to the Chinese as “hua jiao,” this numbing yet addictive spice zings taste buds with its slightly lemony flavor in many popular Szechuan dishes, including Grandma’s Pockmarked Tofu (or “ma po dou fu”). These small, dark brown pods are normally sold whole, then toasted and ground at home before being used in the kitchen.
How I discovered it: Having grown up in a Cantonese household, I wasn’t introduced to much Szechuan food until I started dating my husband in 2006. On our third date, he cooked his mother’s recipe for Grandma’s Pockmarked Tofu—a delicious dish of ground pork and tofu in a spicy sauce. His family has introduced this spice to my family, and my mother now regularly rubs whole chickens with salt and Szechuan peppercorns before roasting.
How to use it in the kitchen: Many Szechuan dishes use this versatile spice, and in recent years, I’ve spotted it making the leap onto innovative dessert menus around town. Szechuan peppercorns easily lend their distinctive flavor to many dishes—for example, in a weeknight beef and vegetable stir-fry. In my upcoming cookbook, The Everyday Wok (available in November 2012), I’ve included my mother-in-law’s easy recipe for Grandma’s Pockmarked Tofu. But Seattle mag reader's can get it here:
Where to buy it: Szechuan peppercorns are available at Uwajimaya (approximately $2.50 for a 4-ounce bag).
Recipe: Grandma's Pockmarked Tofu
Serves 4 to 6
3/4 pound ground pork
2 teaspoons shao-hsing wine
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 or 2 fresh red chilies, sliced, depending on your heat preference
1 or 2 tablespoons chili oil, depending on your heat preference
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 scallions, finely minced
30 ounces (3 packages) soft tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 heaping tablespoons hot broad bean sauce
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns, toasted and ground
In a bowl, mix together the ground pork, wine, light and dark soy sauces, sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch. Set aside to marinate for 20 minutes.
In a large wok, heat the vegetable oil, chilies, and chili oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the garlic and scallions and stir-fry for another minute to allow the flavor to release into the oil. Add the pork mixture, crumbling it with your spatula so the pieces of meat become small and pebbly. Take your time–this is an important step for the final texture of the dish, and you want to do a thorough job. Cook the pork until it is no longer pink, 5 to 6 minutes.
Gently, so as not to break up the pieces, add the tofu to the wok and heat through. Add the broad bean sauce and as much of ground Szechuan peppercorns as desired, then toss gently, making sure the sauce coats all the tofu and pork evenly. Dissolve the remaining cornstarch in two tablespoons water and add it to the wok.
When the liquid bubbles up and thickens, remove the wok from the heat. Serve immediately with steamed rice.