Hey there everyone, it’s recipe time again and, this month, I’m keeping things simple. A simple recipe for one of my favourite chinese side dishes that shows off a non-chilli spice that I’ve not featured before.
But, more interestingly, today’s recipe doubles as a review. A test to see how other versions of the spice affect the heat and flavour of my dish. Because I bet you didn’t know that there were more than two breeds of pepercorn.
This time around, I’m going to feature a whopping seven in my salt and pepper tofu but don’t worry – I’m still going to make a batch with the standard black that we all know and love.
And, while I enjoy the dish as is, you can easily swap out the tofu for fried chicken bits if you fancy something with more meat. Or just a different texture since I know that, even at its crispiest, tofu isn’t for everyone.
I’m not going to tell you how to fry that chicken in this post but there’s always my chipotle korma one if you need some pointers.
And, with all that out of the way, let’s get started, shall we?
You will need:
200g fried tofu (sold this way in chinese supermarkets)
½ cup cornflour
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons peppercorns of your choice (I used black for this first part)
As always, I began by chopping up the key ingredient, the tofu. Simply halving each of my pre-fried cubes to make them a bit more bite-sized:
Then I made my batter.
A simple mix of the salt, pepper, tofu and cornflour but it’s worth noting that my pepper was ground in a pestle, not the grinder that it’s pictured in.
Why? Partially because the slightly bigger segments make for more bite (as I discovered when making mapo tofu) but mostly just because it makes the second part of this post easier. I don’t have grinders for all my types of peppercorn so this is the simplest way to ensure a fair test.
Toss those three ingredients together in a small bowl and throw in your tofu to coat it.
Then return about ten minutes later, once the tofu’s residual moisture has bound the coating on, to toss the segments in your batter again. This works best if you use recently defrosted or rinsed tofu and gives you a thicker outer layer for more spice.
You can skip it if you want but we’re all spice lovers here and black pepper isn’t all that hot. You might even want to chop in a medium chilli when you fry them if you like it fiery.
Me, though, I prefer my salt and pepper tofu pure and peppery. And I also prefer to cook it in generic vegetable oil but more flavoured oils like olive should work fine.
You could even add a splash of a chilli oil like the very asian Vengeance, if you’re feeling adventurous.
Yet, for now, I’m keeping things simple. I’m going to warm up 3 tablespoons of my standard oil in a small pan on medium heat.
And then I’ll fry my tofu for a couple of minutes on each side, until the cornflour stops looking pale and the cubes are nice and crispy. Which is all it takes, really.
Cooking this dish is super simple and it provides enough of this classic chinese starter for at least two people. Feel free to halve the recipe if you’re eating alone. Or making all the variations like I am.
This black pepper one being exactly what you’d expect – Crispy, bold, peppery and heavy on the salt but not to the point of unpleasantness.
And it comes with a bit of an after bite. A nice, low but sharp
by my reckoning, though your mileage may vary. The way that different heat tolerances line up doesn’t always translate perfectly from person to person.
Which could, in fact, be a slight issue, since my second peppercorn is szechuan. A variety with its own, often quite sort after variety of spice.
The zing of a szechuan peppercorn has mild anaesthetic properties and is used in chinese cooking to numb the mouth slightly and make other spices (mostly chilli) more bearable.
They’re highly aromatic and smell slightly citrusy but, in flavour, I find them more floral and metallic. Yet pleasantly so. Enjoyably metallic, even if that is a somewhat alien concept to most people.
That flavour definitely comes across here but so too does a certain nuttiness that’s appeared now that they’ve toasted and the distinctive numbing spice of the pepper is relatively weak. I feel it after each bite and whenever I go for a drink as a very prominent but still quite low,
A mild wave of gentle fuzz that’s not too dissimilar to the lingering affect of toothpaste. Albeit without the actual mintiness or taste-changing properties.
It’s alright but, if I do this again, I think I’d cook some more lightly crushed corns in with the tofu to really infuse the szechuan oils. The dust in the batter doesn’t quite cut it for me. I do tend to like my spices strong, though.
Regardless, there’s a clear difference between szechuan pepper and the typical western sort and, while the western works better for this dish, it doesn’t tend to for the rest of chinese cuisine. This pepper is worth investing in is you enjoy a lot of asian food.
Then, second among our special peppers, we have piper retrofractum. A spice commonly known as “long pepper” but not to be confused with piper longum, which also holds claim to that name.
It’s the weirdest in appearance of all my peppercorns and can even, due to its shape, be argued not to be one at all. Yet it’s in the same family as black pepper (unlike szechuan) and has an unmistakeably peppery flavour, even if it is also quite woody and green herbal.
It’s almost as if the plant couldn’t make its mind up on whether to produce a seed or a leaf, so we got this weird catkin-like thing as a half-way house.
But, bizarre as it is, it still manages to create an incredibly captivating aroma as it fries. One that, despite the spice’s east-asian origins, would fit beautifully into a “dry” indian curry.
It’s a deceptive scent, though, as it seems to carry away with it most of the long pepper’s flavour. What little remains is delicious but the volatility of the spice means that it only just accents my tofu and, despite being hotter than black pepper raw, I only get a measly
from the end dish, which is almost unnoticeable behind the salt.
This is not, unless you can seal it into the sauce of a curry, a spice that you should be cooking with. This is one for seasoning your steak, fish and mash. Uses that will make the most of its absolutely delightful but sadly also quite fragile taste.
I thoroughly recommend piper retrofractum but not for this purpose.
For this purpose, simple black peppercorns have proved the best so far but we still have four more varieties to go:
An earthy, slightly tabacco-like but mostly grapefruit-scented relative of the szechuan known as “timut pepper”.
An oaky, musty and zesty variety called voatsiperifery, which more resembles what we know as black pepper.
The lightly-scented “grains of paradise” that were the original black and have a eucalyptus-style cold sensation in my nose.
And some large, camomile-looking things known as “passion berry” that have a pungent, herbal tea smell tinged with the passion fruit that they’re named for.
All four are varieties that I purchased recently from my old suppliers at Sous Chef and all four hold vast interest for me but, before we try them out, I want to take a momentary break to look at the names.
Unfortunately, not being a fluent speaker of nepali or malagasy, I can’t tell you what they mean but I can still offer you a pronunciation. I did manage to learn enough of the languages to provide that much and, as it turns out, to recite exactly one 📽️ song from Moana 📽️.
The “timut” is simple. Nepali doesn’t have our “ih” or “uh” sounds but is otherwise perfectly phonetic. As long as you remember that the vowels are an “ee” like in “bee” and an “oo” like in “boot” but both slightly shorter, it’s really quite hard to mess up. An easy “tee-moot”.
And, in fact, the madagascan language of malagasy seems to work in a similar fashion. The I is an “ee”, the O is an “oo” and the E is an “ay” as in ale.
Voatsiperifery is harder to say but not by virtue of any linguistic complexity. It simply uses some unusual sounds like a “voo-a” with the A from “animal” and a “tsee” that doesn’t match any english word that I can think of.
If you can manage the “tsu” in “tsunami”, though, you should be able to substitute that vowel and, for the “voo-a”, try saying “sewer” and swapping the first and last sounds. A V instead of the S and an “uh” in place of the “er” and you’ll be saying everything correctly.
I haven’t technically covered the Y but that’s just a I written differently because it’s a word ending. The proper pronunciation is simply “voo-a-tsee-pay-ree-fay-ree” and I love how fun it is once you get it down pat.
So I guess we’ll start the next segment with that one. How does voatsiperifery pepper taste and feel?
Well I did say that it was zesty on the nose but it’s not until I’ve cooked it that that actually comes across in its taste. Raw, this peppercorn is more closely akin to dried brambles, tree bark or allspice without the spice. A little nutty and very very woody.
It loses that woody side when fried, though, which seems odd as it’s the nuttiness that I really smell cooking off, and trades it in for more zest. A sort of floral, fruity but non-specific zest, like if szechuan peppercorns weren’t metallic. And it’s blended with a much stronger version of the ‘corn’s nutty side.
Raw, I had my doubts about this pepper. It was just too woody to suit anything but dark drinks and jerk sauce. Fried, however, it’s much lighter and I really rather like it.
It won’t replace black pepper for me, partially because it doesn’t grind well and so gets a terrible coating, but the bits of tofu that do pick up a good amount of this spice actually have a nice burst of heat to them. A mid-level
that even manages to slightly surpass its common counterpart.
Voatsiperifery makes great tofu and that means that timut’s got a lot to compete against. Especially as it’s another hard grind.
But, unlike voatsiperifery, timut pepper smells great right away. Its bright, fruity, grapefruit-like citrus scent almost completely drowning out those other notes that I mentioned.
And, as it cooks, they’re drowned out even more by a tiny hint of the szechuan peppercorn that this one’s related to. A tiny hint that says a lot about how this one feels.
I’ve been eating individual peppercorns as I’ve gone to make sure I knew what the raw pepper tasted like but it was a little harder to tell with timut. Not because it was weak but because, after a moment, my tongue just felt like a slightly cold chunk of television static.
From what I remember, this did taste like it smelled – A mixture of grapefruit and its szechuan cousin – but I refuse to confirm that notion on the grounds that I actually need to be able to feel my tongue to finish this.
So I was pretty glad that the tofu turned out mild but then I bit into one of the last few pieces and got a wave of floral, nutty, szechuan-style flavour with dry grapefruit overtones and a high
that left the same fuzziness in my mouth.
Timut seems annoyingly inconsistent, since the salt and slight browning of my tofu is doing far more work for most of the dish. Which could just be my poor timut pepper grinding skills but, if so, I’m curious at to why the whole bowl still has a decent citrus aroma when it’s inside my mouth.
In my opinion, cooking with this pepper is going to take a little trial and error to get right but, if you’re into that chinese “ma la” or “numb spiciness”, then you’re really going to get a kick out of it.
It’s like szechuan pepper with a little less upfront zing and a lot more tingle to follow. Not to mention more of the citrus that people keep telling me I should be picking up in that variety.
Next, though, the passion berry. The one that reminds me of camomile and herbal tea.
I didn’t have high hopes for its flavour, or at least not when it came to it suiting my tastes, but they rose a little when I began cooking it. The aroma coming from it was less pungently floral and far more fruity. Passion fruity, like the name suggests.
And, after the last two, I really loved how easy the flower bud seed pods were to crush.
Yet, ultimately, there’s still too much camomile to the finished tofu. I can’t stand their final flavour and, having eaten so much other tofu already, I threw this batch out.
Other people – Ones who actually enjoy camomile – might well appreciate this spice and, if so, Sous Chef’s recommendation of pairing it with fish would be perfect.
You definitely do have to appreciate that pungent, camomile-like, floral undertone to like passion berry, though, and its heat seems pretty non-existent to me. I’m not convinced it’s a peppercorn at all.
And finally, the “grains of paradise”. The pepper that was once worth more than gold.
Though, if my modern understanding is even remotely correct, that’s largely to do with its antimicrobial properties and the bland british diet of the time.
As I crush it up, however, it immediately strikes me how different it is. Not only does it look like coarse coffee grounds but it also has the most intense menthol aroma, with an after note of old soil.
Not one hundred percent pleasant but a lot better than the last “pepper” and quite unlike anything else that I’ve had. Perhaps, also, this scent might explain where “peppermint” gets its name from.
That menthol-y aroma translates to a cold, menthol-like spiciness, too, but both disappear when this pepper cooks.
Both the smell and the flavour of the fried pepper grains are actually pretty normal. More warm and welcoming, where the black pepper was almost in your face aggressive, but otherwise rather similar.
To me, this spice isn’t anything special. When raw it’s weird and unpleasant and, once cooked, it’s just a better version of what the world already knows and loves. Including, even, a slightly higher
that isn’t anything like the one it has in its raw form.
I enjoy the grains of paradise and would definitely choose them over black if both were on offer as I was cooking but they’re nothing earth-shattering or quite as versatile.
Worth trying so that you can make your own mind up, I think, but not something to go to vast lengths for.
And that’s it. All seven of today’s peppercorn types, the longest post that I’ve ever written and a hell of a lot tofu eaten.
I would recommend the piper retrofractum long pepper for those who love curry and steak, the szechuan for chinese cuisine, the timut for hardcore chinese cuisine lovers who want more and the grains of paradise for chefs looking for that little extra edge. Or for anyone interested in a more historical western spice palette.
The voatsperifery would be great for a change of pace or perhaps to suit winter cooking with more cinnamon and nutmeg-type flavours but doesn’t have quite the niche that the others do, while the passion berry I could only ever recommend to someone obsessed with both passion fruit and camomile. It will never replace actual peppercorns in any setting.
But there are still a few varieties out there that I haven’t had my hands on – The pipali that Burning Desire use, for one – so I may do another peppercorn comparison some time. And, who knows, if you really want it I might even include other ripening stages or treatments of black pepper.
Thanks for sticking with me through this super long sunday special and do let me know if you decide to make any one of these variations on the dish.