Chinese Chili Peppers & Peppercorns

Order many a dish at a Hunanese or Sichuanese restaurant and you would expect to see bright red chilies on the plate and taste a spicy chili heat on the palate. Although these two regions are known for boldly flavored, incendiary favorites like kung pao chicken, dan dan noodles, or dry fried green beans, Chinese chilies associated with these regions actually came to the country from South America by way of Portuguese traders.

The term for chili pepper in Chinese literally translates to spicy pepper. And though it may seem that there is a singular red chili used in Chinese cooking, there are actually a variety depending on the region and they come in different forms depending on the dish –fresh, toasted, powdered, pickled, or incorporated into chili oil or sauce. The classic Hunan steamed fish dish, “duo jiao yu”, calls for salted chilies.

Chinese Hot Pot
In southwestern China, the long, narrow Yunnan chili is essentially chili de arbol without the stem possessing a thin skin with smoky flavor and fiery heat, and is added to the region’s noodle soup. The fragrant sun-dried chaotian jiao (also called Tianjin), or “facing heaven” chili grown in the Tianjin province, is a Thai chili hybrid, and is so named because the fruits grow facing skyward. A larger, rounder and dense pepper, it comes in green and red varieties and can be found either in stir-fried or steamed dishes. The skins carry great flavor, but the seeds are searingly spicy.

While Sichuan peppercorns do not descend from the chili pepper from the Americas or from black pepper, rather belonging to a berry plant, they are grouped into the pepper family for all intents and purposes. They impart a unique numbing or tingling heat also known as “mala” adding a different flavor dimension than spicy heat, while offering citrus, wood, and floral flavor notes. It is often paired with spicy chili peppers for flavor layering, and is also a component of five-spice powder. Classic dishes that require Sichuan peppercorns include mapo tofu and Sichuan hot pot. Infused into oil, it becomes a perfect dressing for wontons.

Chilies are a core ingredient in Chinese cuisine and define many a dish, adding not just sizzle, but depth and complexity.