These are a delicious, spicy, numbing, flavor-packed snack. I tried to build a recipe which is satisfying in small amounts—it’s something you’ll want to eat a few at a time rather than by the handful.
I developed this recipe because most the recipes I could find didn’t really live up to the name “strange”. Following the recipe itself will be a discussion on my methods, as well as a works cited of other recipes I took inspiration from. Anything with an asterisk will be further explained in the discussion.
- 1/2 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole sichuan peppercorns*
- 1 or 2 whole dried hot chilis with seeds
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/2–1 inch section of ginger*
- 1 tablespoon chinkiang vinegar
- 1/3 cup water
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup whole, unsalted, skinned peanuts*
- Mortar and pestle
- Cutting board
- Stainless steel pan, carbon steel pan, or wok*
- Food or candy thermometer*
- Wooden spoon
- Aluminum baking tray*
- Parchment paper or cling wrap
1. Making the Flavor Paste
Heat the pan without any oil over a medium-high flame. While it is heating, peel the garlic and skin the ginger, and slice both into thick slices.
Add cumin seeds, peppercorns, and chilis into the dry hot pan. Toast, tossing gently, until cumin and chilis are darkening and aromatic but not burnt, about a minute or less if the pan is hot enough.
Transfer spices into mortar, and crush into a coarse powder with the pestle.
Add the garlic and ginger chunks to the mortar, and grind into as fine a paste as you can.
Add the vinegar to the mortar and mix it into the paste. You should have 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of dark, dank, not-quite-runny paste at the end. Set aside.
2. Making the Syrup
Add sugar and water to the pan, and heat over medium-low heat. Don’t stir. The sugar should dissolve as the water heats up without stirring. As the mixture simmers and gets hotter, it should form smaller glassy bubbles.
Use the thermometer to monitor the syrup, and once it hits 250 degrees take the pan off the heat and let cool for 10 seconds.
Add the flavor paste and mix it well with the syrup with the wooden spoon. Adding it is small amounts makes it easier to incorporate fully.
3. Adding the Peanuts
Drop the peanuts in the syrup, and stir well. Keep stirring until the syrup is just starting to clump the peanuts together, then pour out the mixture into a parchment- or clingwrap-lined sheet tray. Keep stirring as it cools, breaking apart the chunks as best as you can and covering the peanuts with as much of the syrup as possible.
Once the peanuts no longer stick together while stirring, you’re done. Let the syrup cool fully, then transfer peanuts to an air-tight container.
In theory they should store for a few weeks, but I’ve never had a batch last more than 5 days before I’d eaten them all.
On the equipment:
Most recipes call for a wok, seemingly just for some air of faux authenticity since you’re never sauteeing anything to develop wok hei. I used my seasoned carbon-steel pan once to approximate the carbon steel of a good wok, and found it a pain to clean afterwards because you can’t soak carbon steel or it will rust. So finally I just used a cheap stainless saucier pan, and it worked just as well and took about a quarter the time to clean.
A thermometer is really useful here, as sugar goes through many different stages really rapidly when heated (as anyone who watches the Great British Bake-Off knows). But not all is lost if you don’t have one! My thermometer is broken, so I’ve been relying on sight to cook my syrup. As soon as the bubbles of the simmering syrup start to get glassy, smaller, and thicker, I pull it off the heat. I have found that you’re better off under-cooking than over-cooking the syrup. If you under-cook it, it won’t solidify as it cools, and you can just put the syrup and peanuts back on the heat to evaporate some of the water. If you over-cook it, it will turn into a crumbly mess before coating the peanuts, and you’ll have to add more water and put it back on the heat, which will soak the peanuts and ruin their texture.
You similarly don’t need to have an aluminum baking tray to cool the peanuts, any clingfilm-covered flat surface will do. Aluminum, being a good conductor of heat, will cool your peanuts faster than a cutting board or countertop, which means less time waiting to snack.
The mortar and pestle isn’t really optional, unfortunately. It’s too little volume to make in most food processors, too liquidy to make in a coffee/spice grinder, and needs to be crushed too fine to work with other crushing methods. But honestly if you cook with any regularity, a mortar and pestle is a nice thing to have—spices, pastes, and sauces come out so much more flavorful from an m&p than from a grinder or food processor because you actually end up crushing the cell walls, instead of just tearing the cells apart from each other.
I use a metal spoon to peel my ginger. Fastest, easiest method by far. Here’s a short video. Then you want to cut the chunks of ginger against the grain, so as to sever the fibers inside the ginger root to make it easier to pound into a paste. Technically you don’t need to cut the garlic, it’ll smash up just fine, but the ginger needs to be cut into 1/8 inch slices.
On the flavor paste:
This is the most important part of the recipe. Most recipes I’ve seen don’t call for nearly enough spices. 1/2 teaspoon of sichuan peppercorns isn’t going to be numbing, it’s just going to tickle a little. A pinch of chili powder isn’t going to be spicy—it’s barely going to even add flavor. No, I wanted something that packed a punch, something where a few peanuts would satisfy a craving, and a handful would start to burn.
I started with Fushia Dunlop’s strange-flavor peanut recipe from her wonderful cookbook, Land of Plenty. Her recipes tend to be paired down to their absolute basics. I think of this like The Joy of Cooking but for Chinese food: the techniques are down 💯, but often it’s a better starting place than ending place, and the flavors are tailored a bit to an American palate. (That said, her mapo doufu is perfect.)
So from her recipe, I looked at a few other options. Lucky Peach’s 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Mechon has an “odd flavor sauce” which adds ginger and garlic to Fushia’s simple spice mix, but it’s a runny sauce and has some additions that would be questionable in a peanut snack (like soy sauce and tahini). And an online recipe recommended using cumin seeds, which turned out to be a great addition for rounding out the flavor.
Finally, I upped all the ingredients based on my own experience. I love the way the sichuan peppercorns make my mouth feel, and I wanted that to be the primary sensation of the peanuts, so I used a full tablespoon. Now, my peppercorns are not the freshest since they’re just a cheap chinatown brand, so if you get yours from some fancy specialty shop you might find you need less. I also use whole dried japonica chili peppers rather than chili powder or pepper flakes, because I wanted these to pack an equal heat punch to balance the numbing peppercorns. I might even throw in a pequin pepper or two next time to really bring the heat.
Toasting all the spices together really brings out their flavors, and grinding them first makes turning the garlic/ginger into a paste easier, as the spices act as an abrasive in the mortar and pestle. You can add a little bit of homemade or store bought chili powder here as well. These usually have some dried herbs and dried garlic in them, in addition to multiple kinds of dried chilis, so they can add a rounder flavor profile to the peanuts.
One thing to note is that there is no salt in my recipe. I like that the primary flavors are umami (from the nuts and chinkiang vinegar), sour (vinegar), sweet (ginger/sugar), and spicy, and I think salt would crowd that out. My girlfriend, on the other hand, doesn’t like snacks that aren’t salty, and it would be easy enough to add a pinch or two of kosher salt to the paste or the syrup.
Finally, if there are any allergy worries, you don’t have to use peanuts for this. Any nut should do. This is theoretical since I have only done this with peanuts, but I’d imagine that cashews, roasted (not raw) almonds, and/or pecans would work best. I wouldn’t do walnuts, I don’t think the flavors are right.