February 4, 2004
Sichuan Food's Signature Fire Is Becoming Hard to Find
By DENISE LANDIS
FIRE is a not unfamiliar sensation in food. Cuisines all over the world get a zap from chili peppers in dozens of guises. But there's nothing like the numbing sparkle that the food of Sichuan gets from the Sichuan peppercorn — huajiao, as it is called there.
"You can't cook Sichuan food without huajiao," said Wang Dinggeng, the chef at Grand Sichuan International on Second Avenue. "You can't get that special ma la flavor," he said of the peppercorns' numbing (ma) and burning (la) effects.
But will the tingle be around for much longer?
Since 1968, the federal government has banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried berries of the prickly ash shrub. The Agriculture Department did not really enforce the ban until two years ago, and its effort is expected to dry up supplies soon. Or maybe not.
Some chefs and retailers say that they are unable to find the peppercorns, which are often an ingredient of five-spice powder, a common Chinese seasoning. Others say they are selling what was stockpiled before the enforcement effort began.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, some Chinese stores are selling them surreptitiously, and some Manhattan shops carry them in unlabeled bags.
In 1968, the Agriculture Department prohibited the import of all plants and products of the citrus family, of which the Sichuan peppercorn is a member, because they could carry a canker that destroys citrus trees. The ban was not strictly enforced before a revision of the department's manual for field inspectors, after the canker had begun to devastate citrus crops in Florida. The revision specified that the ban applied to Sichuan peppercorns (Zanthoxylum simulans) and the Sansho peppercorns (Zanthoxylum piperitum) used in Japanese cooking.
The canker is caused by bacteria that are harmless to humans but highly contagious among members of the citrus family. It is spread by physical contact. There is no known chemical treatment for the disease, and both infected trees and those nearby must be destroyed.
But while it is known that the prickly ash shrub, which grows in China, Japan and North Korea, carries the canker, department officials could not point to any scientific study or research that showed that the dried peppercorns carried it.
"Unfortunately, the popular Sichuan peppercorn is banned from import into the United States due to its classification in the citrus family," Dore Mobley, a spokeswoman for the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in a statement. When asked whether there had ever been a case of peppercorns contaminating citrus trees since the ban was imposed in 1968, Ms. Mobley did not point to any.
"Citrus canker poses a significant threat to not only citrus in Florida, but citrus in California, Texas and Arizona as well," she said in the statement. "Therefore an across-the-board ban on citrus from specific countries known to have the disease is the cornerstone of our efforts to protect U.S. agriculture."
Last month, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service approved a treatment to kill the canker by heating the peppercorns to 140 degrees. But that changes their quality and character. No other treatment, including irradiation, kills the canker.
The peppercorns seem more readily available in the East than in the rest of the country, but baffled customers everywhere are looking and not finding them. Because peppercorns have a shelf life of several years and the ban has been enforced for about two years, the shortage of peppercorns is only now being felt. While some prices have gone up as high as $25 a pound, the peppercorns were selling for $4 a pound in New Hampshire this week.
Bob Pizza, the assistant manager of the Spice House, a small family-run business in Milwaukee, Wis., said that in the fall of 2002, an Agriculture Department inspector confiscated the store's supply of the peppercorns, about four or five pounds.
But Ms. Mobley said the inspection service had only 130 inspectors dealing with smuggling and improper importation, so not all stocks could be confiscated.
Finding the peppercorns can be challenging.
An owner of one of the largest Indian and Middle Eastern food stores in Manhattan, with an extensive array of spices, said in a telephone interview that he could not get the peppercorns anymore. But a visit to the store found them on the shelf. Clerks at one large grocery store in Chinatown said they had none, but they were on the shelf in unlabeled bags.
When a New Jersey distributor was asked over the phone whether he sold Sichuan peppercorns, he said he did. But when the reporter identified herself as a writer for The New York Times, he said he had not had nor sold Sichuan peppercorns for many months and did not believe he would have them again.
A New England food distributor who had a fresh stock of Sichuan peppercorns said she had just gotten it from an importer in New Jersey. But the importer said that couldn't be true because Agriculture Department inspectors had confiscated his stock of the spice about a year ago.
In markets in the Chinatowns of the San Francisco Bay Area the peppercorns were hard to find, but Sichuan peppercorn powder and oil were on the shelves.
When a Chinese-speaking reporter went to a large Chinese grocery in Oakland and asked for some, the clerk pulled a bag of them from under the counter, saying she would not have sold any to an English-speaking customer.
The peppercorns were on the shelves of a Chinese medicinal store in San Francisco.
"Well, if you want to buy from a wholesale market, they won't sell it to you because you are a stranger," a clerk at the store said. "Even here, I am not selling any to foreigners. I heard it took a lot of trouble getting those peppers here." After the crackdown, he said, "people basically took a lot of trouble transporting them to India and then Mexico and then into the U.S., but I won't tell you the name of the wholesale company."
One wholesale company in the Bay Area is apparently continuing to supply regular customers with the spice.
Eric Tucker, the chef at Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, said he regularly uses Sichuan peppercorns and never had trouble finding them in Chinatown.
But John Zhang, the owner of Grand Sichuan International, said the problem is real.
"We face the shortage of peppercorn and don't know what to do," Mr. Zhang said in an e-mail message from China, where he was traveling.
Martin Yan, the cookbook author and television personality, said it was unlikely that large Asian food distributors would import the peppercorns.
"The peppercorns are inexpensive, and there is little to be gained in taking such a risk," he said. "They are used in such small quantities that even a pound will last a long time."
He said that small quantities of the peppercorns might be sent into the United States by being hidden in personal mail.
Mr. Zhang said that some of the peppercorns now being sold are inferior varieties from southern China, not Sichuan Province.
Sichuan peppercorns are reddish brown, have a rough texture and often have tiny stems mixed in among them. They are sold whole with bitter black seeds in the centers, or (as is generally preferred by chefs) cracked open and seeded. They can be found in food markets in Asian communities and where Chinese medicines are sold. They are sometimes incorrectly described as flower buds, probably because a common name for them is flower pepper. Other names that are often used in Asian markets are wild pepper and fagara.
They can be purchased overseas and in Canada, but anyone trying to bring them into the United States could be fined $1,000 for having a prohibited, undeclared, concealed agricultural product.
Eddie Schoenfeld, a consultant with decades of experience in Chinese restaurants, said that Chinese chefs would be unable to cook certain dishes without Sichuan peppercorns, but that they could still create many popular recipes in the Sichuan style.
"It's as if tarragon became unavailable to the French," Mr. Schoenfeld said. "They would still be able to make béarnaise sauce. It wouldn't be the same, but it would still be good."
Mr. Zhang is not so sanguine.
"If there was not the Sichuan peppercorn any more," his e-mail message said, "the Sichuan cooking would be definitely hurt."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Disclaimer: I am not advocating breaking U.S.D.A. regulations and risking the $1000 fine.
But, why bother living in the United States if you can't get it?