By YUMI KURITA/ Staff Writer
September 23, 2020 at 08:00 JST
Editor’s note: The theme of Gohan Lab is to help people make simple, tasty “gohan” (meals).
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A cool vegetable dish with a hot, slightly fruity spice that numbs the mouth might just be what you need to beat the heat at this time of year.
For the third part of our series on spices, we turn to the Sichuan pepper, famous for its tingling, spicy kick.
Known in Japan as “hoajao,” the plant is from the citrus family, just like Japanese pepper (“sansho”), and is sometimes called Chinese sansho.
The kanji characters for the spice literally mean “flower pepper.” The name is derived from the red hull of the fruit, which splits open when ripe and resembles a flower.
It is an indispensable spice in Chinese Sichuan cuisine, along with the chili pepper. We have been seeing more of it in Japan in recent years.
Just like pepper, it comes in peppercorns and powder form.
The peppercorns are known to retain their aroma even after prolonged heating. Start by stir-frying them in a generous amount of oil to draw out their fine aroma. You will detect a refreshing citrus flavor embedded in the spiciness.
The powder spice is best suited as a finishing touch to a dish, or for use in sauces.
Because the heat is still lingering outside at this time of year, we chose a refreshing recipe where the dish is cooled, so it brings the flavors together. It is a balanced dish offering vegetables, mushrooms and meat.
We chose zucchini for the recipe because it absorbs the flavor well, but sweet potatoes, “nagaimo” yam and turnips that will soon come into season would also work well in this recipe.
Approachable like Japanese pepper
Tongue-tingling dishes featuring Sichuan pepper, such as dan dan noodles and spicy hotpot, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Those dishes were runners-up to the restaurant information website Gurunavi's “This year’s dish” award for 2018.
Sales for home consumption have risen sharply. According to an analysis by House Foods Corp., based on data provided by the marketing research company Intage Inc., the figure for 2019 was about 15 times higher than in 2002, when comparable data became available.
“It is a spice we are predisposed to enjoy because it is quite similar to Japanese pepper, which we have used for centuries,” said House Foods representative. “Sichuan pepper is moving out of its fad stage and settling into people’s kitchens.”
In addition to mapo tofu, hotpots and stir-fries, Sichuan pepper is also used when making pickles.
BASIC COOKING METHOD
(Supervised by Katsuhiko Yoshida in the cooking aspect and Midori Kasai in the cookery science aspect)
* Ingredients (Serves two)
2 zucchinis, 1/2 pack eryngii mushrooms (also known as king oyster mushrooms), 100 grams mix of ground beef and pork (aibiki-niku), 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, 3 Tbsp oil, a pinch of salt, 200 ml water, 2 Tbsp sake, 2 Tbsp soy sauce, 1 Tbsp sugar
About 330 kcal and 2.3 grams salt per portion
1. Cut zucchini in rounds with a thickness of 1 cm. Lay flat and dust with salt. After five 5 minutes, pat dry with kitchen paper (PHOTO A). Slice eryngii in 1-cm-thick rounds.
2. Pour oil in frying pan and place on medium heat. Cook ground meat over low heat while separating the pieces. When meat is half done, add Sichuan pepper and cook until meat changes color. Add water, sake, soy sauce and sugar, turn up heat and bring to a boil. Add zucchini. Once zucchini is cooked, add eryngii (PHOTO B).
3. Simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes, turn off heat and place in bowl. Have ice water in another, larger bowl at the ready. Place bowl with fried ingredients in the chilled bowl to cool (PHOTO C).
Katsuhiko Yoshida is the owner chef of Jeeten, a restaurant in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Uehara that offers Chinese home cooking.
Midori Kasai is a professor at Ochanomizu University and chairwoman of the Japan Society of Cookery Science.
Sichuan pepper tofu
Sichuan pepper oil, made by transferring the peppercorn aroma into the oil, is the key ingredient for making Chinese-style chilled tofu.
Add 1 Tbsp Sichuan peppercorns to the frying pan and toast over low heat.
When an aroma rises after about 2 minutes, add 100 ml oil and heat for about 3 minutes while mixing. Turn off heat and pour into a heat-resistant container, while making sure not to burn yourself.
Mix 1 Tbsp of the Sichuan pepper oil with 2 Tbsp each of vinegar and soy sauce. Pour on 1/2 block of tofu (the smooth, silk-filtered type) topped with chopped myoga.
Once the remaining Sichuan pepper oil has cooled, move to a bottle with lid. It will keep in room temperature for about two weeks and can be used to flavor cooked vegetables, fried eggs and more.
The essential oil component of the spice is soluble in oil. Sichuan pepper oil and chili oil take advantage of this characteristic. Chili oil is made by dipping the spices in heated sesame oil to infuse the flavors of the peppers. The aromatic element also tends to transfer more easily into vinegar and alcohol than water. Products that make use of this element include spice vinegar, as well as gin and vermouth.
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