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These Asian spices are lively secrets.

PRICKLY ASH ISN'T A NAME that invites culinary experimentation. But what if you called it Sichuan peppercorn or sansho? The dried berries of these two species of prickly ash (Zanthoxylum) add aromatic flavor and a zingy sensation to fish, meats, popcorn, and other foods.

You may have encountered the woody, spicy-sweet flavor of Sichuan peppercorns (Z. simulans) in dishes from their namesake region of China. Japanese favor the lemony taste of sansho (Z. piperitum), sometimes called Japanese pepper. Neither is hot like black pepper (nor are they related to it botanically). The berries are pleasantly tingly, rather than hot, on the tongue.

Asian markets sell sansho ground and ready to use. You'll find whole reddish brown Sichuan peppercorns sold in plastic bags; to release their fragrance, toast them briefly before grinding or crushing.

To grind Sichuan peppercorns, discard any thorny stems from 3 tablespoons peppercorns (a combination of split husks and seeds). Shake in a 6- to 8-inch frying pan over medium-low heat until they start to smoke, 3 to 4 minutes. Grind finely in a mortar and pestle, electric grinder, or blender. Use, or store airtight up to 3 months. Makes 2 tablespoons.

Ways to use sansho and Sichuan peppercorns

Try either ground spice sprinkled lightly on scrambled eggs and simply cooked chicken. Sichuan peppercorns are especially good with beef. Sansho makes a fresh accent for fish. Or combine the peppers with other ingredients, as follows.

With popcorn. Sprinkle sansho and salt to taste over popcorn.

Sparingly sprinkle Sichuan peppercorns (ground as directed, preceding) over popcorn with Oriental sesame oil, cayenne, and salt to taste.

With tofu. Slice soft tofu and fan on small plates. Season to taste with sliced green onions, sansho or Sichuan peppercorns (ground as directed, preceding), and equal parts of rice vinegar (or cider vinegar) and soy sauce.

With cucumber. Peel and thinly slice cucumber; combine with thinly sliced red bell pepper. Season to taste with rice vinegar (or cider vinegar), sugar, salt, and sansho or Sichuan peppercorns (ground as directed, preceding).
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Author:Johnson, Elaine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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