Szechuan province, in southwestern China, is a land of bold flavors and a variety of chili pepper that will clear your sinuses and cool you down on the hottest of days. "One dish, one shape, hundreds of dishes, hundreds of tastes" they say there, referring to their passion for balancing flavors, aromas, textures and colors. I'd say they're speaking my language, metaphorically at least.
A number of people have told us that the most authentic representation of Szechuan in the Los Angeles area is the food at Chung King in Monterey Park. It seems every food blogger in town has written about this place, but with all those endorsements, Himself and I knew this was where we had to go for the goods.
The dominant color in this meal was RED, for all the peppers so liberally strewn over our dishes.
Himself ordered the fish slice hot pot, which contained slabs of a succulent white fish with mushrooms, bamboo shoots and slices of a taro root gelatin called konjaku. A healthy alternative to wheat noodles, konjaku is gluten free and loaded with fiber. And like a follow-the-leader kid on the playground, it absorbs whatever flavors are around it. I ladled some of that zingy broth over my white rice--the first time. For seconds on the rice, I retreated to the plain stuff to soothe my burning mouth and tingling lips.
I ordered the fried chicken cubes with green onions and sesame seeds, and of course, a ton of chili peppers. The chicken had plenty of heat without my gobbling up any of those bright red beauties. The chicken and chilis just being neighbors on the plate was enough for me to get a heat that was strong but that never overpowered the flavors of the dish.
Not every Szechuan dish is hot, so if you're a little shy about plunging into the peppers, you have options. This dish of rice crust with pork slices came in a mild broth that coated the mouth, to cool and refresh. We ordered a pot of white rice, too, so that helped calm things down. Balance is key to enjoying the hot stuff. By the way, this dish was good on its own, so if you have timid taste buds, you also have options.
Our big discovery: the lip-numbing quality of Szechuan food does not come from those hot peppers. I always assumed that they were so hot that the sensory overload would finally drive your nerve endings to cry "uncle!" and numb out on you. But no, there's a completely different ingredient at work here: the Szechuan peppercorn, which is not actually a pepper or a chili at all. Szechuan peppercorns are aromatic and lemony--they come from a plant that's in the citrus family. But they hold a secret: this is where the lip numbing comes in--they contain a substance that causes a "general neurological confusion," to quote culinary science go-to guy Harold McGee. Beyond flavor, Szechuan peppercorns are added to help you deal with those fiery peppers by producing both numbness and a sort of sensory effervescence, kind of like when you drink a carbonated beverage while eating spicy food. (By the way, water is the last thing you want to drink while eating hot food, because it spreads the heat, rather than washing it away.) The outer husk is toasted, ground and added to dishes just before they're served.
With a face to match the pepper: devil's tongue, anyone?!
You actually do have some control over how much heat you get in a Szechuan meal. These hollowed out super-hot chilis are lavishly served over your order, and you control the amount of heat you consume by eating a few or a lot--or by picking out the meat and veggies and leaving the peppers behind. It's up to the individual diner. In spite of the heat, though, the flavors shine right through--ginger, garlic and Chinese five-spice, a blend of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seed and, ta-dah! Szechuan peppercorn.
My concern all along has been that the heat would completely wipe out the flavor and leave me a done-in pile of sweat, tears and pain. But I was wrong, and I'm champing at the bit for more. Szechuan rocks!