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Forget beer, choose right wine for spicy hot pot (2)

By John H. Isacs (Shanghai Daily)

19:37, January 04, 2013

(File photo)

Pepper corns and chillies

There are many things in a ma la hot pot that make it a challenge for wines, but the two major issues are the Sichuan pepper corns and red chili peppers.

The art of food and wine pairing, among other factors, necessitates a fairly detailed understanding of ingredients. Since Sichuan pepper corns and chili peppers are the greatest challenges to wines, let's take a closer look at these beloved foods.

The Sichuan pepper corn is derived from the zanthoxylum genus and in fact is more closely related to the citrus family than the black or white pepper families. They are an important ingredient in western and northern Chinese cooking.

The Chinese name, hua jiao, literally means flower pepper. Coming from a rather scrubby-looking short tree or bush, the seeds are discarded and the skins or husks are used to create the finished pepper corns. The best pepper corns come from Hanyuan County in Sichuan Province.

The key quality or sensation these peppers impart to foods is a numbing quality on the palate that's been described as a combination of spearmint and Novocain.

Contrary to the popular conception that they dull the flavors of food, in fact, recent studies indicate that they stimulate the receptors on your tongue and sharpen your ability to differentiate the flavors and textures of foods.

In the case of ma la, this means that despite the numb feeling in your mouth the natural flavors of the chilies and ingredients cooked in the pot are accentuated. Your ability to sense fruit, acidity and tannins in wines is also heightened.

My Sichuan friends are nonplussed when told that chili peppers are not an ancient or historic part of Sichuan cuisine. Now synonymous with Sichuan cooking, chili peppers didn't actually arrive in Sichuan until the late 16th century. In 1493 Diego Alvarez Chanca, a doctor on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World, was the first to bring chili peppers to Europe.

These fiery treats were then introduced to Asia by Portuguese and Arab spice traders. Despite their relatively late introduction, by the 17th century chili peppers had already been popular in Sichuan and several other regional Chinese cuisines.

Their unique and delicious way to provide fire and flavor elements to a dish now make them an essential ingredient in many Sichuan dishes including ma la hot pot.

Capsaicin and related chemicals called capsaicinoids give chili peppers their heat. These fiery little creatures bind to the pain receptors on your tongue and mouth sending messages of heat and pain to your brain. A good way to offset these sensations is to drink a boldly fruity and slightly sweet red wine.

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