Spice world

Before it was sullied by those overproduced nits, the term “spice girls” had been used for — best guess — as long as two centuries. It had nothing to do with engineered voices, concocted personae, choreography and booty. It’s literal.

La mei zi, or “spice girls,” is how the women of China’s Sichuan Province are informally referred to, specifically because the spices, often hot or very hot spices, help define the distinctive food made there, and in adulterated versions throughout these United States.

It’s certainly the first thing we think of when ordering from the “Szechuan” column on menus that very likely also offer that gringo-ized abomination, chop suey.

It’s both to our discredit and loss that so many unique, exceptional and traditional immigrant dishes were transformed, or kept away from public consumption, either to appeal to our own bland, Puritan taste roots, or due to eager assimilation and its inevitable effect, homogeneousness.

Fortunately, for some years now, things have been swinging the other way. We’ve learned to insist on traditional flavors, techniques, preparations and results in the foods we eat, and those who’ve been holding back are happy to oblige. (A shining example: Hong Hua, in Farmington Hills, an upscale restaurant with mostly very reasonable prices, unless you get into such items as bird’s-nest and shark’s-fin soups, abalone or other traditional dishes, done Hong Kong-style, and using rare, expensive ingredients.)

While one of the signatures of Sichuan food is the abundant use of chiles, it’s at least as well-known in its gastronomically diverse mother country for melding unlikely tastes.

One of the most famous examples of this, as described in Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent cookbook, Land of Plenty (Norton, $30), is Fish-Fragrant Pork Slivers. She says “it epitomizes the Sichuanese love for audacious combinations of flavors.

“It is salty, sweet, sour and spicy and infused with the heady tastes of garlic, ginger, and scallions. The hot taste comes from pickled chiles, which also stain the cooking oil a brilliant orange-red. ... This delicious combination of flavors is thought to have originated in traditional Sichuanese fish cooking, which would explain why other ingredients prepared in the same way would have instantly recalled the taste of fish to those who ate them, hence the name.”

The most telling fact is that the dish has no fish in it, only this evocative flavor combination used with pork. Not just taste, but taste memory, is in play — a pretty neat trick for anyone to pull off.

Another essential ingredient in Sichuan cooking is called sansho pepper, suterberry, anise pepper, Japan pepper and many other names for the spice most commonly known in this country as Sichuan pepper.

It’s not a peppercorn at all, but the rust-colored husk of prickly ash berries. Its pungency, unlike that of black or white pepper, is numbing or tingly.

For many years, it was very hard to find Sichuan pepper in this country because its importation was banned in 1968 by the U.S. Agriculture Department. It comes from a citrus tree, and was outlawed because it might — though this was never proven — carry citrus canker spores that could ravage American citrus crops. (If you knew where to look, you could always come up with a bag or two. Remember, as I’ve said before, ethnic markets hold many treasures, sometimes even contraband. When I bought some, I rationalized that they posed no risk whatsoever to Michigan’s orange, lemon or grapefruit trees.)

But early last year, sale of the spice was approved as long as it had been heated to 140 degrees or higher, which is intended to kill any spores that may be present. Unfortunately, irradiation doesn’t work, and this heat-treatment changes the taste of the “pepper.” Still, it’s well within the neighborhood of those that haven’t been so hysterically denatured.

I’d share the recipe for Fish-Fragrant Pork Slivers here, but it’s somewhat involved and requires a number of uncommon ingredients. If you want to give it a shot anyway, I highly recommend going right to the source, Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, for it and many, many other reasons. Meantime, you can try your hand at a dish nicknamed “Ants Climbing a Tree,” because bits of pork cling to noodles as you lift them, looking like just what it says.


Bean Thread Noodles with Minced Meat
(Adapted from Land of Plenty)

1/4-pound bean thread noodles
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1/4-pound ground pork
Peanut oil
3 teaspoons light soy sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons chile bean paste
1-2/3 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
3 scallions, green parts only, sliced fine

1. Soak noodles in hot water for 15 minutes; drain just before cooking. To the ground pork, add rice wine or sherry and two generous pinches of salt; mix well.

2. Heat a wok or heavy skillet until almost smoking; add about 2 tablespoons of oil. Add pork and about a teaspoon of light soy sauce; stir-fry until lightly browned and crispy. Add chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant, taking care not to burn the meat. Add stock, drained noodles and dark soy sauce, stirring well, then season to taste with more light soy and salt.

3. When stock is boiling, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until most, but not all, of the liquid has evaporated and been absorbed. Garnish with scallion slices and serve.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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