The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.
I knew I wanted a fish dish, as the delicate texture of fish seemed better suited to the grassy, herbal notes of the green peppercorns. I was thinking about the Sichuan restaurant dish of fish poached quickly in hot oil filled with dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve eaten it at Lucky Star in Brighton, Bar Shu in London and, if I remember correctly, I had a version of it at a Chinese restaurant in Oxford too. The thing is that poaching fish in oil is a bit daunting at home, uses up an unholy amount of oil, and, albeit the fish doesn’t spend much time in the oil, it just sounds alraming. I was raised in the West of Scotland, where chip-pan fires are a leading cause of death, and I’m essentially terrified of oil in large quantities. There was basically no way I was going to fill my entire wok with hot oil.
So I came up with the idea of steaming the fish and then dousing it at the last minute with a fragrant, chili and peppercorn-infused oil. You get the crackly aroma of hot oil, the slightly charred flavour of the aromatics cooked in it, and yet the lightness of steamed fish. I won’t pretend it’s healthy enough to pass muster with the most rigorous low-fat eaters but the amount of oil used is not actually that much and by the time you pour it over all the fish, there’s very little per portion. As a bonus, steaming fish is incredibly idiot-proof so the whole thing is quite impressive looking for very little actual effort. You could make it just as well with regular red Sichuan peppercorns but I must say the ‘green’* flavour of the green ones was particularly pleasing.
Sizzling Sichuan fish
- 2 fillets of haddock or other meaty white fish
- 1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- about 20-30 dried red chilies (don’t panic, you don’t have to actually eat them!)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil (or peanut oil or whatever your preferred mild flavoured cooking oil)
- 4 cloves garlic
- a bunch of spring onions / scallions
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
Start by marinading the fish for 5-10 minutes in a mixture of the soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Top with some scallions. Then put the dish in a steamer and steam for 10 minutes or until flaky and cooked through.
Meanwhile, heat the oil to medium-low and throw in the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies. Fry gently – you want them bubbling but not burning, which they do fairly easily.
Next add the chopped garlic and, in a few seconds, the scallions. Fry till the scallions are soft and just starting to turn brown. Salt to taste and pour the whole sizzling pan of oil over the fish.
*This was how the Chili Pepper Pete guy described the flavour. It sounds silly at first but you know exactly what he means and I can’t improve on it as a description.