Szechuan peppers - I can't feel my face!
My report on Szechuan peppers...
Sometimes, while out wandering in the bars and clubs of Los Angeles, you might hear rumors about a Chinese restaurant whose food makes your face go numb. You might eavesdrop on whispered conversations about a secret chicken dish that makes you hallucinate. In a certain area of Monterey Park, it is rumored, they cook with an illegal pepper that possesses drug-like qualities. My friends have all attested to the numbing and blissful effects of this chicken dish. Even my husband, Bob, has made the trek on the Monterey Park version of the Marrakesh Express. Last night I finally coerced our friend, Jason, into taking us out for hallucinogenic chicken.
I did a little research, and discovered that the magical Szechuan peppers (huajiao), are the dried berries of the Prickly Ash. They were banned because of a bacteria that could endanger California's citrus crops, not because of any narcotic properties (the ban has since been lifted). Which is actually kind of disappointing. It is exciting to think that you are sampling something secret and forbidden. So if anyone hears about any opium-laced dumplings, give me a call.
There are a handful of restaurants along Garfield Avenue that cook with the huajiao pepper, and each one seems to have its devotees. Last night Jason took us to Heath and Gina's fave, Chung King. With only 8 tables and minimal decor, the little restaurant looks deceptively like a greasy spoon. Chung King resembles one of the $1 Chinese Food places that populate America's strip malls. But do not be fooled - this is not your local strip mall. just a few miles from home, you are deep within another culture.
After placing your order, you head to the back of the restaurant to a glass deli counter full of exotic delights. I eyed the tripe, but nobody else seemed interested. I find I sometimes want to eat something daring just to test myself, and I actually have no interest in it at all. Each cold plate comes with three selections. Bob did not seem very decisive, so I ordered the pig ear, dried beef, and pickled long beans.
I selected a slice of pig's ear. It was very different than the pig's ear I had eaten in France, which was a big, chewy mass of cartilege. This was thinly sliced, steaked with ribbons of fat, and lightly pickled in a combination of spices, including most recognizably star anise and hot chile. The fat melted deliciously on my tongue like gelatin, but then my mouth caught on fire. It was like napalm. The fat coated your mouth, trapping the hot chili with it, so it was impossible to douse the flames.
The dried beef was like thick strips of beef jerky, extremely salty, but one of the least spicy items on the menu. I should have noticed the crushed Szechuan peppers coating the sides. My lips started tingling, parasthenia was setting in. This combination of elements is known as Ma La, literally "numb heat". My mouth had the strangest sensation of numbness, and then I felt my throat swell. I feared my throat would close up and I would be unable to breathe, so I pushed aside the cold platter.
The Delicious Smelled Beef was delicious, the meat so tender it seemed like it didn't even have any "grain" to it at all. I really liked the grub-looking slices of bamboo shoot. But it was painfully hot, even with my mouth already numb.
The hot pot beef and fish was homey and comforting. The fish, which we guessed was some type of cod, was tender and perfectly cooked. But again, super-hot-spicy! The best dish on the menu was the chicken, fried to perfection without a trace of greasiness. But this was the dish famous for those peppers, and after one paranoid suffocating episode, I didn't want to overdo it.
Jason asked the owner to bring some of the peppers out for me to look at, and she returned with a scant few in a white bowl. To see how strong they were, I pretended like I was going to down them like a shot of whiskey. I could tell by the way everyone freaked out and grabbed for the bowl, then laughed, relieved, that they really were not fooling around. She waited for me to photograph them, then stood there until I handed them back, and whisked them back to the kitchen. So they are either very expensive and dear, or very dangerous. The waitress came up to expound on the wonder of the peppers. She and Jason talked for awhile, then strangely, he started rubbing her forearm. He interpreted, "She said that Szechuan is cold and humid, so they have to eat this pepper to clean out all of the toxins. She said that is why girls from Szechuan province have the softest skin in the world, which is why I had to see for myself."
There was much discussion between us as to whether or not the huajiao pepper was making us high. I definitely felt lightheaded and strange. That reaction could be attributed to the insane amount of hot chiles we had consumed, or even the culture shock of being in such a new environment. There was definitely an anaesthetic effect. It was compared to cocaine and mild psychedelics.
Has anyone else had this face-numbing experience? What did you think?