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Chef’s best Sichuan pepper adds a powerful punch to any dish

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These Sichuan pepper meatballs are made with pork and beef.

AP Photo These Sichuan pepper meatballs are made with pork and beef. Purchase photo reprints »

Any food that can make your tongue tingle has got to be worth a taste.

I’m not talking a seltzer-like zippiness or even a searing chili-like heat. I mean tingling because your tongue is at once numb and buzzingly alive.

That is the power of the Sichuan pepper (also called Sichuan peppercorn). But why would you want to (albeit mildly) numb your mouth? Because aside from the basic coolness of a tingling tongue, that sensation changes the way you taste food seasoned with the pepper, adding a wonderful punchy vibrancy and warmth unlike anything else.

Despite appearances, Sichuan pepper is not a true peppercorn. It is the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree. And chances are you’ve had it before. Sichuan pepper is a basic component of Chinese five-spice powder.

As its name suggests, the spice has left a serious thumbprint on the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province. It’s also used in Japan, where it is called sansho. The taste has been compared to lime zest combined with black pepper, cardamom and hot peppers. The tingling is likened to an electric charge.

In Chinese cooking, Sichuan pepper is toasted before being crushed or ground. This mutes the spice’s citrus flavors and heightens its woody notes, making for an excellent pairing with meats.

To toast the spice, add it to a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Cool, then grind and use.

Sichuan Pepper Meatballs

Makes 3 dozen

For the meatballs:

2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper

½ star anise pod

½ teaspoon dry ground ginger

1 egg

4 scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1 pound lean ground beef

1 pound lean ground pork

Sesame oil, for frying

For the dipping sauce:

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons honey

Pinch salt

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the Sichuan pepper, the star anise and the ginger for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind until the mixture is reduced to a fine powder. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add the egg to the seasoning blend, then whisk well. Mix in the scallions and the salt, then add the beef and the pork. Use your hands to mix well. Form the mixture into tablespoon-size meatballs.

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat about 1 tablespoon of sesame oil until nearly smoking. Working in batches and without crowding the pan, brown the meatballs on all sides for about 5 minutes.

Transfer the meatballs to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining meatballs, adding oil to the skillet as needed.

When all of the meatballs are browned, place them in the oven and roast for 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the dipping sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, the honey and the salt.

When the meatballs are finished, serve them with toothpicks and ramekins of the dipping sauce.

Per serving: 80 calories; 50 calories from fat (63 percent of total calories); 6 grams fat (2 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 2 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0 grams fiber; 125 mg sodium.

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