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The flavor of Sichuan peppercorns has no substitute

(Photos by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

I’m all in favor of substitutions when cooking and realize that sometimes because of dietary issues or to save money or cut waste, it is essential to use this in place of that. If you can, however, I strongly encourage you to use Sichuan peppercorns for this Orange Sichuan Pepper Chicken from Sarah Tiong’s “Modern Asian” cookbook.

When I asked Tiong why the peppercorn was key to her interpretation of this popular Chinese dish, she explained via email from her home in Australia: “It adds a beautiful balance of pepperiness and floral notes to the dish. It’s perfectly paired with aromatic and warm spices like cinnamon, star anise and clove.”

Get the recipe: Orange-Sichuan Pepper Chicken

Each of these spices are at play here, and she uses all of them whole, scooping up the small peppercorns with her chicken and sauce.

“I love biting into these little bombs of flavor in the sauce,” she said of the peppercorns. “It adds texture and excitement.”

By excitement, she is referring to the numbing or anesthetic effect on the tongue, which is believed to be caused by the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecules in Sichuan peppercorns — which are not actually peppercorns at all but are the dried citrus berries of the prickly ash tree. (I tried the dish with the black pepper and it was still delicious, but I did miss the distinctive Sichuan flavor.)

Tiong advises toasting the peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat or slipping them into a hot oven for a few minutes to activate the aroma and boost the flavor. Then, if leaving them whole seems too adventurous, grind them in a spice mill or a mortar and pestle.

Use them in this dish and then keep going: Make stir fries, such as Kung Pao Chicken, season sauces for other proteins or vegetables. Make your own five-spice powder or Sichuan chile oil.

“My other favorite way to use the toasted peppercorns is to grind them with rock salt,” said Tiong, who works as a private chef while also running a pop-up market stall, Pork Party, in Sydney. “This is a fantastic seasoning on fried foods. Try it on fried and battered squid, chicken or even sweet potato.”

Sichuan food is so much more than spicy

The orange chicken dish is a good example of Tiong’s approach to food. She is Chinese Malaysian, but was born in Australia and grew up in the suburbs and near the beaches of Sydney. Along with cultural heritage, time and place — and her mother — have had a huge impact on her cooking, she said.

“There are no ‘traditional’ recipes in this book,” she said, noting that her recipes may be inspired by Asian cooking, but they also incorporate what she has learned as a chef, adding efficiencies and techniques as well as flavors from other cuisines. She aims to break down borders when it comes to food.

The cookbook includes classics such as roast chicken dinners, and duck and pappardelle, “all with a bit of an Asian mum’s twist,” she said, adding that the cookbook is a tribute to her Chinese Malaysian mother, Christine, who died shortly after Tiong’s last appearance on “MasterChef Australia” in 2020. Tiong’s mother, who grew up in a small village by the river in Sarawak, Malaysia, immigrated to Australia and raised two children while running her own business, working seven days a week most of her life.

With her children clamoring for roast suppers and lasagna, the working mother taught herself to cook these dishes, but still leaned heavily on her Asian pantry, and that fusion of flavors can be felt throughout the cookbook.

“Just because I add miso to my meatballs or soy sauce to my stroganoff doesn’t mean it is any less delicious than what is widely accepted as tradition,” Tiong said, adding that food and identity are inextricably linked, but change over time with life experience. She sees food as a “conversation starter; the best way to break down walls and connect with people.”

“Something doesn’t have to be traditional or authentic to be delicious,” she said. “What is authenticity anyway? Seems pretty subjective to me.”

Get the recipe: Orange-Sichuan Pepper Chicken