There's a Sichuan dish called "Triple Pepper Chicken", at least at some restaurants, which consists of little nuggets of somewhat crispy chicken, hot dried chilis, hot fresh chilis, and Sichuan peppercorn (3 peppers*, see?). I've been eating the hell out of this dish for some years, first at Grand Sichuan in NYC and more recently at New Jersey's unrelated yet similarly named Chengdu 1 (Cedar Grove) and Chengdu 23 (Wayne).
If you've ever had this dish, you know it's spicy and addictive. If you've never had it, you're a damned fool, and need to do yourself a favor and go to one of these restaurants and order it. Order it in double, so you have leftovers for the next day.
Although I eat Sichuan at least once a month, I have no experience in Sichuan cooking and know nothing about it, although I do have a wonderful Sichuan cookbook called Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. I should probably thumb through it some day. What I do know is that oil often plays a part in the sauces (cleverly disguising itself as the sauce), and Sichuan peppercorns are used. For some reason I figured I could duplicate this dish at home. At the very least, the main components are pretty clear (chicken, 3 peppers, oil), and maybe just throwing them together would produce a close approximation, I thought. As it turns out, I was somewhat right.
So with ignorance as my navigator, off I went...
The first step was making some sort of Sichuan oil. For this I toasted a bunch of Sichuan peppercorns, ground them, and put them in a container of vegetable oil, along with some Korean dried red pepper flake, because that's what I had. I wanted to get as much Sichuan peppercorn flavor into this dish as possible, and figured infusing oil with it was a good start. Make it days in advance so it has time to really infuse.
You'll note that I didn't use canola oil, which to me smells and tastes like fish. Surely the rest of the world can't think that canola oil smells and tastes like fish, so I suspect this is a phenomenon not much unlike screwballs thinking cilantro tastes like soap. I'm a screwball who thinks canola oil tastes like fish.
The second step is take cut up the chicken (thighs, please) much smaller than you would think. I mean really small. I velvet the chicken, as that seems like a very Chinese thing to do, and then marinate it in the Sichuan oil for a little while, which might very well undo anything the velveting did.
These nuggets were too big. Cut them smaller.Now, give it a good amount of salt and deep fry it, in batches. "Shallow fry" it if it makes you feel better (don't fool yourself: there's no difference, it's still cooking in oil). I use plain vegetable oil for this, rather than the spicy stuff. Set the fried spicy salty nuggets aside as you prepare the other peppers. And I dare you to not have at least 5 of these fried spicy salty nuggets as you're preparing the rest. Impossible I say.
These fried spicy salty nuggets were a good sizeThen, in a wok or other vessel, heat up some oil, heat it up hot, throw in the whole dried chilis, followed by the fresh chilis (and I use some cucumber because cucumber is good), and lastly chopped scallion. When the vegetables are just browning and starting to soften, throw some of that spicy oil in there, some salt, and the chicken. Throw some more of that spicy oil in there. Remember, the spicy oil is really what is bringing the flavor to the dish. Toss around and...done. I would suggest salting aggressively. These dishes are restaurants seem to include a lot of salt, and I'm guessing it's MSG, with which I have no problem.
You might also consider putting some fermented black bean paste in this dish (available at Asian markets, and Americanized sweet crap available at your local supermarket). It gives the dish a deeper richer flavor, but don't use much more than a teaspoon at first, to get a feel for it. Actually I changed my mind. Skip it for now.
It couldn't be easier to make this version of the dish. Did it taste like those dishes at Chengdus 1 and 23? Well, somewhat. Is it authentic on any level? I don't know, and don't care. After eating it will you, like Clarence Carter's woman, be sas-ified? I think so.
I'm certain I'm missing a lot of components of this dish, including sour and sweet and herbal...and MSG. But this was a pretty good starting point.
- Fresh hot pepper (I use the long green hot ones, and some red hot peppers if I can find them...available at H Mart around north Jersey)
- Dried chili (whole, if using those skinny long ones)
- Sichuan oil (oil with sichuan peppercorn and dried red chili)
- Maybe some fermented black bean paste (go to H Mart for this...skip the Americanized stuff)
- Diced chicken thighs
"Oooooooooh SHIT, Clarence Carter."
*Sichuan peppercorn is neither a corn nor a pepper. It's a dried flower, or a fruit husk, or something. I actually have no idea.