28 October, 2012

Numbing Spice, and Everything Nice...

I was a weird kid. There’s no way I can try to deny it. One of my more peculiar idiosyncrasies growing up: I loved it when my arms or legs would fall asleep. I thought it was cool that I could touch the “sleeping” appendage and I would not be able to feel the sensation on my skin. (Looking back, I’d like to say it was because I had a desire for empathy; I wanted to experience what other people felt when they touched me. But let’s be real… I was a kid; it was cool that I could pinch myself and it wouldn’t hurt.)

Even now, as an adult, paresthesia fascinates me (and as an adult, I know fancy-pants, science words). In China, I find tables are just not an adequate height for a tall waiguoren. I often cross my legs under the table, which inevitably leads to the moment when they fall asleep. The worst is when the pins-and-needles feeling is too intense, and it crosses that boundary from agreeable to painful. In China, you can get that exact same feeling in your mouth with the “flower pepper”—花椒 hua jiao.

This oral paresthesia has been one of many firsts for me in China. Those who have been following my journey since the beginning may remember that I wrote about the Sichuan numbing pepper after my first experience with hotpot. Despite the translation and my insistence on calling them peppers, they are peppercorns that, when you munch on them, create that same tingling sensation. In my previous post, I describe it as analogous to putting your tongue on a nine-volt battery.

After PST in Chengdu and my long train north to Lanzhou, I never got too many chances to enjoy hua jiao. While common and plentiful in Sichuan, unless I order specific dishes at my site, I will never taste the tantalizing tingle. While this is a personal woe for me, it should be noted that I am in the minority. The average PCV dislikes it, with some crazy individuals actively despise it.  

The question remains: why am I nattering on about hua jiao?

This summer, some of my students travelled to Chengdu to participate in Eco Camp. While dining one day, I off-handedly remarked about how much I miss hua jiao in Lanzhou. One of my students heard this and said she would bring me some from her parents’ farm. I told her that would be too kind; she responded, “It would be no trouble at all”.

I forgot all about it. I went on with my summer, arrived back in Lanzhou, and started teaching. During the second week of class, this same student came in one day grinning from ear to ear. She said she had a gift for me, and presented me with this large bag of fresh, aromatic hua jiao.

So much hua jiao!
Ever since, I’ve wanted to devote a post to the surprising spice, including my adventures trying to cook with it.

Sally, the kind student who gave me the hua jiao, explained that she lives on an organic farm near a city Handan, in Hebei province. She told me the prickly ash trees from which the peppercorns were picked grow between the property of her parents and their neighbours. She said her grandparents helped her pick the hua jiao special, just for me. As is typical in China, I’m flattered by people’s kindness.

However, once I got this bag of tingly goodness home, I had to ask myself what to do with it (other than take some photos for my blog). I have spent quite a bit of time over the last couple weeks reading whatever I could online about it, as well as common ways it is used.

I came across tons of recipes, most of which things I’ve eaten here in China (I bookmarked all of them for future reference). I also read about roasting hua jiao and then grinding it up with salt for an exciting seasoning. Roasting it is as easy as heating up the wok (or frying pan, if you’re playing at home), tossing on the peppercorns and waiting for them to begin smoking. As soon as that happens, they are done. Grind them up. (I used a mortar and pestle because I didn’t think my friends would appreciate numbing pepper in their mini-coffee grinder.) Add salt, and you’re done.

Motivated by such a simple success, I wanted to do more. I have quite a bit of hua jiao, so why not try to actually cook with it? I have been cooking for about a year, but I had never tried to cook a “real” Chinese dish. (I say “real” because I consider the fried rice I make a poor, waiguoren facsimile of the real thing.)

Enter: my friend Amanda. She and her husband are the nearest volunteers to my university. They are only a twenty-minute walk from wo de jia—that’s “my home” for anyone who didn’t read my other post—so I try to hang out with them once a week. In an effort to encourage her own blogging, she recently started a cooking blog (which I must endorse, as I am lucky enough to eat some of the things she prepares for the blog).

With her on a quest to cook authentic Chinese dishes, and me looking to cook my first Chinese dish as well as my first dish with hua jiao, we joined forces for what can only be known as The “Bloglaboration” of the Decade (that’s not true; if you have a better portmanteau for the words “blog” and “collaboration”, let me know).

The night of the cook, we planned three dishes: suanni huanggua (算你黄瓜), mogu doufu guotie (蘑菇豆腐锅贴) and my hua jiao dish, gan bian doujiao (豆角). The first, suanni huanggua, is a simple cold dish of garlic and cucumbers. For the second, I made up the Chinese name. Guotie is the Chinese word used for pot-stickers, but is more commonly translated as fried dumpling. We made fried wontons stuffed with mogu and doufu—mushrooms and tofu. Gan bian doujiao (roughly) translates to dry stir-fried green beans; it’s a common Sichuan dish, i.e. full of hua jiao.

This dish, gan bian doujiao, is a go-to when I am at restaurants. It is never not delicious. Because I have had the dish so many times, I decided to give it the old college try without looking at a recipe. This is how I did it…
First, chop up the green beans, then second guess their size and chop some smaller. Regret that decision, leaving some pieces large and some small. Also chop some up some dried chillies and mince garlic.

Heat up the wok and add very little oil—very little. translates to “dry”, so it should be barely enough to coat the surface and no more. Add the beans on a medium heat. Stare thoughtfully at them and wonder if they should be boiled or steamed first to pre-cook them. Add a couple pinch-fulls of salt to the beans. Realize they need to be stirred and do so. Toss the beans around the pan to try and collect that little bit of oil because you’re terrified of burning them to the wok.

Let them sit and cook for a while, stirring somewhere between occasionally and frequently a smidge closer to frequently. Realise when you order it at restaurants, the beans are typically burnt and stop panicking that you’re going to ruin the dish.

After an undetermined amount of time that, because of anxiety, feels like forever, add the garlic, dried chilies and hua jiao. Turn heat up to high and flick the contents of the wok around like a madman. Shake the wok furiously, making sure all of the beans, etc. keep moving. After a nerve-racking amount of time doing this, it is finished.

(It’s important to give credit where credit is due. Amanda and I collaborated on all three of the dishes, so while I wrote this from my manic-compulsive perspective, it was a team effort. Mostly, Amanda told me to quit whining and man-up while I was pouring my anxiety over the wok.)

Next weeks BlogThings post: Describe a time when you felt the most loved by someone. In addition, below are some additional pictures from our cooking session, and as soon as her blogs are up, I will link those as well.

Eating it, I was surprised by how strong the hua jiao
flavour was. Next time I cook it, I plan to add a few
more pinch-fulls of salt and a tad less hua jiao.

While I was being a baby while
cooking, it's important to note Amanda
made me chop the mushrooms
because "they feel squishy".

1 comment:

  1. This sounds and looks delicious Michael...try to bring some roasted hua jiao seasoning home for us to try. Dad