This is the salt and pepper of China, and how much more interesting than our own! The salt acquires a depth of flavor during roasting that mates beautifully with the numbing tingle of the fragrant flower pepper. Visually, it is like the prettiest of sand beaches, a study of pale browns, golds, and off-whites. Its Chinese use is primarily as a dipping salt to cut the rich oiliness of deep-fried foods. In a Western kitchen, use it as a subtle all-purpose seasoning – for omelettes, roasts, vegetables, salads or your own deep-fried specialties. ** Chinese favor a high ratio of salt in the mixture. I cut it back to let the pepper come through. For extra dimension and punch, you may add some fruity black peppercorns [Tellicherry recommended] to the mix.
Avoid roasting the salt in a wok or pan with a prized patina. The salt will absorb the oil. Instead, use a dry, medium or heavy skillet. Also, do not use sea salt or regular table salt in this mixture, even in reduced proportions. It has an acrid, strident taste here which overwhelms the peppercorns.
Yields ½ cup.
½ cup Szechwan brown peppercorns
½ cup kosher salt
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns (optional)
Combine the salt and peppercorns in a dry, heavy skillet. Stir over moderate heat until the salt turns off-white and the peppercorns are fragrant, about 5 minutes. The peppercorns will smoke. Do not let them scorch.
Scrape the hot mixture into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, then process for 1 minute until fine. Alternatively, pound into a fine consistency with a mortar and pestle.
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the peppercorn husks, then store in an airtight bottle, away from light, heat, and moisture.
Use sparingly. A mere pinch or sprinkle is the right approach, as the mixture is very pungent.
Sprinkle foods with pepper-salt before serving them, and/or serve the mixture in tiny dip dishes alongside each place setting or in a dip dish nestled on a serving platter.
The pepper-salt remains good so long as it is keenly aromatic, several months if you store it correctly.
Walnut Chicken Slices (page 148); Cinammon Bark Chicken (page 162); Fragrant Crispy Chicken (page 172); Phoenix Tail Shrimp (page 235); Spicy Shrimp Fritters (page 237); Deep-Fried Shrimp Balls (page 240); Shrimp Rolls with Crisp Seaweed (page 241), and Steamed Corn with Szechwan Pepper-Salt (page 318) as a dipping salt, and in numerous dishes as a seasoning.
At home, whenever I look down (in my knife drawer where I keep my China Moon cleaver) or look up (at my kitchen bookshelf where my copy of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking rests), I am reminded of Barbara Tropp’s extraordinary talent.
I only had one meal at China Moon Café (a dinner that was the highlight of an otherwise stressful business visit to San Francisco), but I had already been a China Moon Catalogue mail order customer for some time. Every time a China Moon package of ingredients or equipment arrived at 510 East 86thStreet, Apt. 16 D, the picture window looking north toward the Harlem River seemed suddenly to open out and my work stresses would fly away.
Sometimes I would get lazy and purchase Barbara’s pre-made Szechwan Pepper-Salt from the catalogue, but as you can see, it’s very easy to prepare your own and fun to do. And now that she is gone from this plane, the fragrance and textures remind me of Barbara Tropp and her lovely, gentle art.
Anyone interested in cooking Chinese food at home or simply reading a superb, original and authoritative cookbook should purchase The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Seeing it on the shelf, but especially taking it down and consulting it, removes me from this sour, vituperative moment where too much is being sold, but there isn’t enough worth purchasing (assuming you can manage the transaction).
Recipe: Barbara Tropp, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, New York, William Morrow and Company, 1982.