HOT, HOT, HOTTER: A Szechuan food trip

by Geraldine Rullan-Borromeo
(Manila City, Philippines)

Published in the Daily Tribune Life
July 10, 2011

Just when I thought that peppercorns were all the same, whether green, black, red or white, with slight variations of spiciness, I discovered the famed Szechuan “pepper.” The Szechuan spice, native to the Szechuan province of China, is actually a berry of a tree of the rue family, and not a pepper at all. The resemblance of the form of the dried berry to peppercorns has perpetrated the myth of the Szechuan “pepper.”

The spice of the common peppercorns, no matter how much of it one uses, is nowhere near the scale and body of hotness that a Szechuan berry imprints on your tongue and mouth. Szechuan berries are rust in color, with thin stems. The rough husk of the dried berry is the source of spiciness and not the brittle, black, pepper-like seed inside it.

As an added incentive to venture into spiciness, the berries are known to have medicinal effects and are claimed to be used as a toothache remedy (the Szechuan tree is called by others as a Toothache Tree) and is used to heal wounds. It is also claimed that the berries are stimulative and used as a blood purifier and digestive. Indeed, these are good enough reasons to sample the legendary heat of Szechuan cuisine.

At the launch of the Szechuan Food Festival at the Xin Tian Di Restaurant of the Crowne Plaza Galleria Manila, I did not pass up the chance to experience whole fresh and dried Szechuan berries, still on its stems, and its spicier version, ground Szechuan berries, with a hotness scale you can detect just from inhaling its aroma.

“Szechuan, a Great Cuisine of Asia” was featured last July 15, and those who will discover this cuisine will find that the Szechuan berry on a hotness scale imparts medium heat with a lot of punch. It does not just provide heat as the spice comes with a fragrant citrus profile and produces a tingling sensation beginning at the point when the berry touches your palate and steadily envelopes it in sweet heat.

I started with the pickled vegetables, Szechuan style. The mélange of tri-colored bell peppers with wild mountain Szechuan bamboo shoots was piquant, with a lingering stinging heat — one need be careful to take one slice at a time.

Curiously, the heat is not off putting as I find myself trying one pickle after another. Each sting of the Szechuan becomes quite addicting as it is not the kind that gives a headache nor does the heat go up the nostrils. The heat builds up nicely, I must say, but with a heady persistence.

As I tasted the Buddha Jumped Over the Wall soup, there was quite some heat swirling around like a thin smoke in my mouth, warm with some tingling heat, but not burning.
Legend has it that when Buddha ate the soup, it was so delicious that he jumped over the wall. With shrimps and winter mushrooms aplenty, it really is a soup that is worth a jump I had to ask for a second serving.

The non-spicy soup served to soothe my palate to prepare it for the next Szechuan dish, the Boiled Lapu-Lapu in Butter Soup. I saw the Szechuan berries with the stems on in the soup and I gingerly ate some Lapu-Lapu along with the mushrooms in the red broth, a foreboding of a lot of heat.

To my surprise, the spiciness was balanced with a sourness that unexpectedly allowed more portions to be eaten with ease. The rich butter rounded off the flavors, providing a well-seasoned tempering of the savory spicy flavor.

The star of the Szechuan launch was the Mapo Tofu, a dish familiar to every Chinese food lover. This version though was made of chicken instead of the usual ground pork, and was cooked tableside.

As the Szechuan berries were gently roasted right before my
eyes and the pungent and spicy aroma of the berries wafted to
the table, it was a gastronomic high of the senses. It looked so simple really, but the timing and astuteness required of it is a skill acquired over time and a lot of training with the spices.

As the chicken and tofu were sautéed along with other aromatics, the ginger and onion, I was excited to have Mapo Tofu in a way I probably have not tried before. And as the dish was finished by adding the sauce, I was hankering for the spiciness even if I was not sure I could handle it.

True to their promise, chefs Fei Tang, Guozhang Li and Li
Yang of InterContinental Chengdu, China, downscaled the spiciness. It was still spicy though, but spicy just enough to suit palates unaccustomed to Szechuan cuisine. I must say that Xin Tian Di’s Mapo Tofu is not the sickly sweet and salty version of the haphazard versions in hurried Chinese kitchens. It is piquant, with a hint of sweetness and a zing to it that in unmistakably Szechuan.

Next, I had the Sautéed Pork Filet “Country Style,” yet another Szechuan dish that highlights spiciness in a different way. The pork was prepared like a jerky and bacon all at once with sweetness and an earthy spiciness, but the spice from it mostly sprung from the bias cut red and green chili fingers tossed with the pork. Thus, ultra spiciness is an option, and I just had a bite each of the red and green chili.

To finish off the meal was a non-spicy dessert, although I was quite convinced by then that Szechuan sweets were also
spicy. Soft steamed rice dumplings filled with black sesame paste and coated with ground peanuts capped off the spicy
adventure I am quite eager to repeat soon.

Xin Tian Di Restaurant.
Crowne Plaza Galleria Manila is along
Ortigas Avenue, corner Asian
Development Bank Avenue, Quezon City.

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