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Savoring The Spice In Kung Pao Chicken

Sichuan peppercorns (center) are a distinctive taste in Sichuan food. Their numbing power can also be applied to ease toothaches.
Andrea Hsu/NPR
Sichuan peppercorns (center) are a distinctive taste in Sichuan food. Their numbing power can also be applied to ease toothaches.
Melissa Block learns how to cook Kung Pao chicken at The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu.
Andrea Hsu/NPR
Melissa Block learns how to cook Kung Pao chicken at The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu.
Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken.
Melissa Block/NPR
Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken.

When we decided to do a week of All Things Considered broadcasts from Chengdu, China, in May, little did we imagine that we'd find ourselves covering an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake hit the day after I arrived in Chengdu.

I had been in Chengdu in April, gathering material for stories to air the next month. I had planned to do one story a day on the food of Sichuan, which is justly famous and utterly delicious.

Naturally, the earthquake put those stories on hold.

Now, here's one of those stories, from a day I spent at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in April. It's a prestigious cooking school in Chengdu that is training the next generation of chefs. The school reopened just a couple of days after the earthquake.

The Lure Of Sichuan Food

Sichuan food is famous for its mouth-numbing, spicy heat. And in the time I spent in Chengdu, I grew especially intrigued by a singular Sichuan sensation: ma.

Ma means "numbing" in Chinese, and that numbing sensation is a distinctive characteristic of Sichuan food. It comes from the Sichuan peppercorn, hua jiao, which translates to "flower pepper."

These peppercorns are not to be confused with hot red chili peppers. In fact, the Sichuan peppercorn isn't a pepper at all. It's an aromatic berry from the prickly ash tree.

When they're dried, the peppercorns turn a beautiful purple, and they're used with abandon in many dishes.

And there's another use: I've learned that you can put a peppercorn in your mouth to numb a toothache.

That was one lesson among many I learned during the day I spent at the school.

Layers Of Flavor

My teacher at the school, Li Jianqing, challenged me to bite into a Sichuan peppercorn. He told me a Swiss visitor had tried, but couldn't handle it.

Well, I couldn't resist that challenge, so I popped a peppercorn into my mouth and chomped down hard. Right away, my tongue started to tingle. Then, the sensation spread. My mouth started buzzing, dancing with a fizzy heat. The tingling moved from my tongue to my lips — it was a good tingling, not painful. Bit by bit, the taste filled my mouth — fragrant and a little bit sour.

Then, we got down to business. Li gave me a cooking demonstration, expertly stir-frying a wokful of a classic Sichuan dish: Kung Pao chicken, or chicken with peanuts, flavored with hot chilies and Sichuan pepper.

Before I left for Chengdu, the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop told me I had to eat Kung Pao chicken there. She said it would taste totally different from the dish I'd eaten many times in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

And she was right. When I sampled Li's Kung Pao chicken, it had layers of flavor I had never tasted before.

My Turn To Sweat

Then Li challenged me again: "Can you do this dish?"

There's only one answer to that.

So, I put on a white chef's hat and got to work on the Kung Pao chicken. First, I mixed up the sauce — black vinegar, soy sauce, salt and sugar, mixed with corn starch and water — and poured it over the diced chicken. Li turned the gas on under the wok, and the flame roared up fiercely around it.

I tossed the chicken in the wok and started stir-frying, maybe a bit too energetically.

"Relax!" Li told me. Easy for him to say.

It turns out, stir-frying in a mock professional kitchen is harder than it looks. The wok was heavy and seemed huge. I held one handle with my left hand, which was wrapped in a towel to protect it from the heat. But it was an awkward grip, and when it came time to slide the chicken out of the wok, I lost some in the process.

Into the wok went hot chilies and those famous Sichuan peppercorns. Then, ginger, garlic and scallions. Last, I dumped the chicken back in, stir-fried it all together, and that was it.

Finally, the moment of truth. Li took a bite.

"It's very good," he said. "It's better than mine."

But I knew he was just being kind to a visitor. And he was too polite to mention that I had burned the chilies.

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