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The Spice is Right

For celebrity chef Peter Chang, it’s all about the peppercorns

Author Sally Kohn

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When it comes to Chinese food in America, cartons of sugary sesame chicken and heavily sauced noodles have started to take a backseat to cuisine from China’s heartland, the Sichuan province, where the most famous flavor is neither sweet nor salty nor even umami, but notoriously, hellishly spicy.

“American palates are moving away from the sweet styles of [Chinese] cooking,” says Peter Chang, a Sichuan chef best known for his habit of working at random Chinese restaurants all over the South, then abruptly quitting and disappearing, a tic so prominent that it was documented by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker in 2010.

But with the Sichuan craze gaining steam in the U.S.—perhaps most notably at the New York City and San Francisco hotspots Mission Chinese Food—Chang has resurfaced with a trio of eponymous eateries between Charlottesville and Williamsburg, Va., with a new one scheduled to open in Virginia Beach by the end of the year.

Good Sichuan, says Chang, boils down to a single ingredient: “Sichuan peppercorns activate parts of the mouth that no other spice does, opening the taste buds up to more intense flavors.”

By this, Chang means that the peppercorns aren’t exactly spicy, at least not in the way a chili pepper is. They produce a sensation called ma la in Mandarin. “Ma refers to the numbing sensation Sichuan peppercorns have on the palate,” says Chang. “La refers to peppers’ spiciness.” The resulting dishes taste much like eating something incredibly hot after a few shots of Novocaine—a flavor you won’t get from a carton of lo mein.

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