Sour, sweet, salty and bitter: These are the cornerstone flavors in Western cooking. Add umami, the element of savoriness pinpointed by the Japanese to describe a taste component in seaweed, mushrooms and fermented foods, and you think you’ve got it covered.
Tingling and buzzing? Those aren’t pleasant sensations we generally associate with food, but one of the signature elements of Sichuan (or Szechuan, to use the once-preferred spelling) cuisine is a tiny dried seed husk often called Sichuan peppercorn. The spice is not a true peppercorn (it comes from the prickly ash tree), but it’s often used in conjunction with dried chile flakes because its numbing effect balances out high heat levels in certain dishes. Still, most Americans haven’t experienced the odd sensation known as ma la — which ranges from a mild tingling to an electric buzz to pure numbness, depending on sensitivity and amount consumed — not because they lack an adventurous palate, but because it was illegal to import Sichuan peppercorns until about ten years ago.
Once the USDA lifted the ban — which was originally enacted in 1968 to protect citrus trees from a disease carried by the seeds — the ingredient began making its way back into recipes at Chinese restaurants that serve traditional Sichuan cooking, and Westerners are encountering it with more frequency these days. While the Sichuan peppercorn is still not common in Denver, you can find it in a few dishes inspired by the culinary style, which originated in its namesake province in south-central China.
If you’ve never experienced the effect, it’s helpful to be armed with a little knowledge before you dig into a dish packing a ma la punch. First, unless you’re eating the stuff by the fistful, Sichuan pepper won’t numb your mouth like a trip to the dentist. You may experience a slight tingling, a subtle cooling effect like menthol or a more assertive buzzing, but you won’t be so deadened to sensation that you’ll keep stabbing your tongue with your chopsticks. More notably, the pepper causes a slight shift in how your tastebuds perceive flavor. Cold water might taste a little tangy or sour; what would normally be blisteringly spicy could come in as pleasantly piquant instead; and salty flavors are definitely diminished — so it’s best to lay off the Kikkoman.
Sichuan peppercorns also have a flavor of their own; they lend a fruity, lemony and slightly medicinal taste to sauces, not unlike sumac powder in Mediterranean cooking.
To give you the chance to dabble or dive in head first, we’ve scouted out three Denver dishes that create a definite buzz, from an appetizer with Sichuan-pepper training wheels, to a tofu dish that packs more temperature than tingle, to a full-on ma la assault in a sizzling hot pot.
A Beginner’s Tingle
Uncle Joe’s Hong Kong Bistro
891 14th Street
Uncle Joe’s, right across from the Colorado Convention Center, offers a cool and calming ambience, with purple booths, white-quartz countertops and expanses of gray concrete. Gone are the jangly reds, golds and greens of the traditional American-Chinese eatery; after all, this restaurant sits amid some of the city’s most interesting architecture, so dated kitsch won’t do for the theater crowd and after-work executives.
But the menu itself offers jolts of flavor to balance the serene atmosphere, including a sprinkling of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. The kitchen uses a dry-pot technique — similar to hot-pot cooking, only without the boiling broth — for the chicken wings on its xiao chi (small plates) list. Carrots, lotus root, scallions and wings are cooked together with spices in a searing-hot pan to produce crisp-skinned chicken with juicy, shreddy meat. Reddish-brown flecks adhering to the skin are a combination of Sichuan peppercorns, red-chile flakes and five-spice powder, giving just a hint of tingle along with a decent burst of heat. And because the wings and vegetables are tossed together, the lotus root and carrots offer the same crunchy crust and tender center. These wings are a great way to experience ma la in familiar bar-food format.
An Intermediate Buzz
Hasu Asian Bistro & Sushi
250 Steele Street
Hasu Asian Bistro opened in a basement-level space in Cherry Creek North last year, giving its sushi bar top billing over the traditional Chinese cooking that was so popular at the restaurant’s previous incarnation, East Asia Garden on South Broadway. But while a few dishes have been deleted from the original menu, dinner still features hidden gems, including a rich, saucy ma po tofu.
Ma po tofu (or doufu, as it’s sometimes spelled) is a combination of ground pork and soybean curd in a tongue-tickling sauce that has spread from Sichuan province to the rest of China and into Japan. Restaurants in Denver that dive deeper than the standard General Tso’s or Kung Pao chicken (another dish with distant Sichuan origins) often include ma po tofu. Hasu’s version gleams with bright cubes of silken bean curd under a layer of brick-red sauce.
Once you get past the idea of a traditionally vegetarian ingredient paired with pork, the textures work well together — albeit in reverse of standard protein-and-sauce combos. In this case, the sauce provides the toothsome texture, like an Italian Bolognese, while the tofu adds creamy smoothness. Bursts of freshness come from bits of ginger and garlic to counter the building fire of dried chiles. The Sichuan peppercorns are subtle in this dish, and the lemony, floral notes come through before you have any inkling of numbness.
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An Advanced, Numbing Heat
Yum Yum Spice
2039 South University Boulevard
Yum Yum Spice is new to the University of Denver neighborhood and caters to the school’s population of Chinese students, with brimming hot pots and dry pots packed with uncommon proteins like duck head, frog or several choices of offal. But there are standard meats available, too, along with the usual roster of American-Chinese dishes. Yum Yum is a small, bright space that could easily become raucous when full, despite the lack of a liquor license. On our visit, only a few other tables were occupied, but all of those were focused on sizzling or bubbling metal woks atop Sterno burners.
The do-it-yourself hot-pot menu makes it easy to customize portion size, ingredients and heat level. First, pick small, medium or large; our server indicated that the medium size is good for two people, but we still went home with prodigious leftovers. Next, pick a protein: We went with whole, head-on shrimp. For ma la level, you can adjust both the heat (chile flakes) and spice (Sichuan peppercorns). We were craving the full effect, so we opted for the highest level on both. The pots come with an assortment of vegetables, but you can flip the menu over and choose add-ons at varying prices. Our server suggested shrimp balls and eggplant as a good accompaniment to the whole shrimp.
The dish, as we ordered it, came in at the top end of the Sichuan-peppercorn scale, with enough of the spice to experience actual numbing beyond a gentle tingle. It’s an addictive effect in the same way that incendiary green chile is addictive: Your tongue and brain become just a little addled and tell you that the best path forward is to keep eating more. The peppers coat the tongue with mild tartness, giving white rice a creamier flavor and making ice water seem dosed with vinegar. The sauce itself is dark with bean paste and on the oily side (to convey heat in the dry-pot method), but it soaks into the vegetables for juicy bursts of flavor, especially in the eggplant. The shrimp were a little difficult to eat, jacketed as they were in shells and sauce — but if you’re game, the shells, heads and legs are perfectly edible.
As the Sterno burns out and the pot cools, the effects of the peppercorns dwindle and the meal comes to an end. Beyond the unique experience, the dish was genuinely tasty — and definitely worth buzzing about.