Growing up I had my fair share of squid. Not just fried calamari, but simmered in red sauce, served atop angel hair pasta, and my personal favorite, Italian Calamari Salad. Growing up Italian seafood was in abundance in my home because we adored it in our house. As I got older and dined out more on my own, with friends, and later my fireman, I fell in love with Salt and Pepper squid when I would have it at my local Chinese restaurant.
Now, if you have never had Salt and Pepper Squid, and you are tempted to pass it by, you need to give this a try. While it is often compared to fried calamari, I can assure you aside from it being fried, the similarity ends there. Not just for the way it is seasoned, but because it is prepared vastly different by Sichuan peppercorns, and this makes for a vastly different taste experience. Let me explain.
What are Sichuan Peppercorns anyway?
Sichuan peppercorns are actually not a peppercorn, but are a seed pod from the Prickly Ash tree in China. They are not spicy at all, but what is nifty about these babies, is that they contain a compound called hydroxy alpha sanshool, that creates a reaction to the nerve receptors in our taste buds. so that when we consume them, they create this numbing sensation in our mouth. It feels like this odd buzzing, and once you have had them, you will not forget it, and it really gives the illusion you have consumed something inherently spicy, but they are not spicy at all, in fact they taste almost citrusy. Thus because of the way this compound reacts to the nerve endings, our senses become confused and it holds this oddly unique sensation, thus giving the illusion of spice. When used in a dish like Sichuan Salt and Pepper Squid, when combined with mixed peppercorns, as I use in my everyday dishes, it takes this squid and makes it a sensational taste experience.
Where do you find Sichuan peppercorns?
Until 2005, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from the United States, because of a bacterial disease that it could potentially create, not in consumption, but when imported, it could spread disease to American foliage and plant life. I will tell you I consumed them during this ban in one or two restaurants Chinatown, in NYC, so clearly this was coveted contraband. Since the ban was lifted by the FDA and the USDA, Sichuan peppercorns can be found in specialty Asian markets, which I am fortunate to have my pick of, in my town, or online at Amazon. If you don’t want to buy them or use them in this recipe, use a mix peppercorn medley, of coarsely cracked pepper.
Is Salt and Pepper Squid Spicy?
This recipe calls for mildly spicy, I don’t use traditional red or Thai chilis, I prefer to infuse the oil with a few Serrano peppers then slice one or two to add some spice to the squid as it is frying.
Isn’t this really just kicked up fried calamari?
I will tell you being Italian this is vastly different, as I have stated, and I am about to shock my Italian family and confess to you that I much prefer this to fried calamari, and I know if you make this the same way I do, you will see why. Using a mix of cornstarch, flour, and baking powder makes this coating fry up so light and airy. Also, the key to getting this so delicate is using baby squid if you can find them, it is really just smaller than regular squid but either will work. Preparing this with the addition of the Sichuan peppercorns, along with the mixed peppercorns, and the Serrano pepper infused oil, takes this over the top. It is so good you don’t even need dipping sauce, but if you did, you could use a sauce like my Garlic Aioli Dipping Sauce.
IS CALAMARI SQUID OR OCTOPUS?
There is some confusion about the differences in calamari, squid and octopus. Because of its popularity, calamari has become a generic term for squid. Calamari is the Italian word for squid, and both are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Now on the other hand octopus is much different taste and texture, and while they are both cephalopods because their heads are attached to their arms (tentacles) they are wildly different in terms of how they taste, octopus has a more “meatier” taste than squid, that some compare to chicken or pork when cooked, but is more forgiving in terms of its buttery taste, which I prefer grilled. It is very common in Spanish, Asian, and Mexican dishes. Where as squid is a lighter and milder tasting and can be chewy and tough if overcooked.
I hope you give this recipe for Sichuan Salt and Pepper Squid a try, and don’t be intimidated by the Sichuan peppercorns! This recipe is a nice change of pace from Fried Calamari. Not that there’s anything wrong with THAT.
Sichuan Salt and Pepper Squid
A simply made authentic Chinese food favorite that's light, airy, and full of flavor, with just the right amount of heat!
Credit: CrazySexySavor.com/Susan Mangieri-Maurath
- 3/4 cup of cornstarch
- 1/4 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. of Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 3/4 tsp. of mixed cracked peppercorns
- 1 1/2 tsp. of Kosher salt
- 6-7 Serrano chilies whole (optional)
- 1 sliced Serrano or Thai chili for garnish if desired
- Clean and prepare squid. Remove the pen, that’s the thin membrane inside the squid if it remains intact, some fish mongers remove it some do not. Remove the outer fins and outer membrane, if attached. Rinse in cold water. Dry completely with paper towels, Slice the squid into about 2 inch slices. Blot dry again. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, Sichuan peppercorns if using, and cracked mixed peppercorns. Add in squid and mix well to coat. Take squid and place in mesh strainer, mix one more time, then allow squid to rest undisturbed over the same bowl in the mesh strainer for at least 20 minutes.
- While squid is resting, fill a medium size sauce pan, fill with about three inches of canola oil, along with the Serrano chilies and heat over medium high heat until an instant read thermometer reads 375°. Remove the Serrano chilies before frying the squid.
- After 20 minutes, dump squid back into the original flour mixture and dredge one last time. Place back in strainer and remove excess flour by gently sifting into the original bowl. Discard flour at this time. Place squid a handful of squid rings in hot oil. Do not overcrowd pot. Fry for about 2 1/2-3 minutes until light golden, do not overcook or squid will be rubbery.
- Remove to a wire rack lined baking sheet, and continue in similar fashion with the remaining squid. Serve while the squid are still hot for best results. Garnish with sliced chilies and cilantro if desired. Devour.
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