One of my favorite things to eat in Sichuan restaurants is a cold appetizer featuring thinly sliced beef and tripe. You may feel freaked out by the concept of cold tripe, but stay with me: The tripe is a conduit for an amazing and complex sauce.
Chili oil, cilantro, crushed peanuts, and Sichuan peppercorns brighten the sauce. These elemental flavors of Sichuan cuisine took hold of my mind like a drug. I am addicted to the spice of the oil, fresh herbal flavor of the cilantro, salty crunch of the peanuts, and tingling sensation that the Sichuan peppercorns offer.
Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I am no expert when it comes to Sichuan cooking. I have never visited southwestern China, where the Sichuan province is located, and my only exposure to the cuisine is from restaurants in New York City. So, when I decided to cook a version of cold Sichuan sliced beef and tripe using mixed mushrooms in place of the beef and tripe, I had no ambition of being authentic. I wanted nothing more than to try my hand at recreating a flavor combination that I truly enjoy.
Mushrooms are a good substitution for sliced beef and tripe because they absorb the flavor of chili sauce well, and because the texture of certain cooked mushrooms can mimic the texture of tripe and beef. Finely diced celery and cilantro stems round out the dish, providing a crisp, refreshing taste and texture in contrast to the unctuous chili oil and vibrant Sichuan peppercorns.
If this is your first time working with Sichuan peppercorns, keep in mind that they can create a tingling or numbing sensation in your mouth. Their lemony flavor can be vaguely reminiscent of dried whole coriander, but there is truly no substitute for this unique ingredient. Here, Sichuan peppercorns are toasted alongside fennel seeds, and then ground with cinnamon.
This recipe is also ultimately about the juxtaposition of hot and cold. The chili oil and cinnamon offer warmth, the ground fennel and numbing effects of the Sichuan peppercorns create a cooling sensation. At its best, the sauce for this dish is like a symphony, with contrasting flavors creating a harmonious unity. Traditionalists may bristle at the idea of changing a classic Sichuan dish to include mushrooms instead of sliced beef and tripe, but I say if it tastes good, do it.
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil (substitute canola oil or grapeseed oil if you need to)
- 1 pound mixed mushrooms (see note)
- 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine (substitute sake or manzanilla sherry if you need to)
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons finely cut cilantro stems
- 1/4 cup finely diced celery
- 2 tablespoons chili oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 handful toasted salted peanuts, crushed
- 1 handful roughly chopped cilantro leaves
Have you cooked with Sichuan peppercorns before? Tell us about it in the comments!