The Strangest Spice

Peppercorns Jon Fasman in More Intelligent Life:

There are many drawbacks to becoming a food writer—money and fatness spring to mind. But they all pale in comparison to the problem of translation. When food delights it does not delight in words; it delights in a way that exceeds, or slips past, or twists around words. People who write about music have this same problem, which is why both fields seem to turn out so many gossipy profiles: you can’t describe a transcendent song or dish, but you can easily describe the marital or financial peccadilloes of the person who created them. A meal is usually memorable for reasons ancillary to the food—the company, or the setting—but even when the food itself is memorable, memory calcifies it. It is a rare taste that breaks through the film of words.

All of this is by way of saying that about six years ago I sat down with three others for the full ten-course parade at Per Se, complete with wine pairings. I remember the austere but elegant restaurant, the way that around course five the meal tipped from Lucullan into some sort of strange performance art, but I can recall only one taste from the fifty or so dishes we tried that night: a single shortbread cookie, around the size of a domino, flavoured with Sichuan pepper and served as a companion to some sort of warm-spice ice-cream (cinnamon, I think, though it could have been anise or nutmeg).

That was not my first taste of the spice: its more familiar habitat, as its name suggests, is in the cuisine of south-western China. New York’s Grand Sichuan restaurants have made their reputation largely through liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies. And Peter Chang—a prodigiously gifted and famously itinerant genius of Sichuanese cuisine—has been the subject of Mash notes from more exalted food writers than I (such as Todd Kliman and Calvin Trillin), largely for his expert use of the spice.