Sichuan Pepper-Studded Little Crispy Pork (Xiaosurou, 小酥肉)
Pork Meets Dipping Chilies~~
This dish called xiaosurou, or little crispy pork, is deep-fried fatty pork studded with plenty of numbing Sichuan pepper. It is a starter or a snack—rich, numbing and spicy—and you will not want to eat it as a meal. Well, you may actually want to, but you probably shouldn’t.
The last two times I’ve had hotpot in Chengdu—both times with locals who were in the food biz—they both ordered xiaosurou as a starter for eating while the pot is heating up. That’s smart, because it can take a while to make a dent in your hunger from hotpot morsels, so the breaded pork can tide you over while you wait. To me, little crispy pork seems like the perfect drinking food, and if I owned a bar I’d definitely serve the pork and some dipping chilies alongside beer.
What are Sichuan dipping chilies, you might ask? This is a condiment made of chilies, Sichuan pepper and all kinds of other seasonings and secret ingredients that is served with all kinds of Sichuan food. It is served as a dry dip with Sichuan hotpot, and especially with the kind of hotpot called chuanchuan where the food is cooked on skewers. It is also served sprinkled on and alongside Sichuan-style shaokao BBQ. I have had it served with a plate of salt-roasted whole new potatoes and with fried foods like little crispy pork—though dipping chilies are optional here, because the Sichuan pepper-studded pork can definitely stand on its own flavor-wise.
We have just started importing a dipping chili for The Mala Market that is the best we’ve tasted—the maker also supplies a famous hotpot chain with this dip. In Chinese, it’s called just gandie, dry dish, but a better translation is chili dip or dipping chilies.
I had no idea how to make xiaosurou until one of our product partners posted a video and recipe for it on their WeChat account. I follow all the companies we buy products from in Sichuan, and they are all pretty active on WeChat. Yaomazi, which makes our green Sichuan pepper oil, travels the country making professional videos of professional chefs and the dishes they’re famous for. There is entertainment value there for sure, but little real usable instruction for the home cook. Pixian Douban Co., on the other hand, has a couple of young chefs in their test kitchen cooking up dishes on a small burner and shallow pan (usually not even a wok!) that can easily be made at home.
Pixian Douban posted this recipe on Feb. 1, 2020, when China was at the height of its Covid outbreak and the rest of us had barely registered the virus. The writer notes that when he was young, xiaosurou was a treat for Lunar New Year only but that now it is quite common (now that Chinese can afford to eat a lot more meat, I surmise). The Pixian video cooks are offering up xiaosurou as comfort food, which it most certainly is, and along with the cooking tips they tell their readers: “Staying at home honestly means being responsible for yourself and society.” So, a year later, both the dish and the advice are still on the table for the rest of us.
This treat is really easy to make too, if you don’t mind deep-frying. Although the Pixian Douban cooks don’t always use a wok, I highly recommend one for deep-frying, since the shape of the pan means you have to use considerably less oil to deep-fry. Fill it about a third of the way full, and you’re set.
You’ll notice above that all three examples of little crispy pork feature different batters, but what is key is using a thick batter, because unlike most fried food in Sichuan, which has a lighter touch, this one should have a thicker crunch. The meat is twice-fried, as is pretty much all Sichuan deep-fried food. It is important to (carefully) add the strips of pork individually to the hot oil, so they don’t clump together. This is best done with long cooking chopsticks or tongs. I get a revolving dip going—some going in, some plucked out as they get to the light gold stage, not necessarily in batches. The first fry is at about 325F, generating a steady, medium bubble. The second fry is at about 375F, or a fast bubble, which adds the final golden crunch.
Two other things to prioritize to make this dish go from “fried food is good” to “this fried food is divine”: Choose a fatty pork. My best results were with a pork shoulder steak that had quite a lot of fat. Pork belly also works, but it’s hard to cut into thin strips for frying. Pork shoulder without much fat or pork loin is too lean for this dish. The fat makes for a juicier, more pleasing bite.
Secondly, how much do you and the people you are cooking for like the numbing punch of Sichuan pepper? If you’re Sichuanese in Chengdu, you might stud the batter with whole peppercorns for a super spark to offset the rich pork. If you’re a tiny bit afraid of the numbing spice, you might want to use a finely ground Sichuan pepper powder in the batter or sprinkled on at the end. I take the middle road, crushing the peppercorns into large bits in a mortar & pestle and using a good helping of it, because I definitely want the flavor and effect but I don’t want it to overwhelm the pork (or my husband).
For the perfect Chengdu hotpot to pair this with, try our recipe for Sichuan Mala Hotpot, From Scratch (Mala Huoguo with Tallow Broth) or Michelle Zhou’s recipe for Yunnan Mushroom Hotpot (Huoguo, 火锅)!
Sichuan Pepper-Studded Little Crispy Pork (Xiaosurou, 小酥肉)
- ¾ pound pork shoulder (pork shoulder steak with plenty of fat is ideal)
- 1 tablespoon red Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan dipping chilies (optional)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup corn starch (or potato starch)
- ¼ cup all purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 3-4 tablespoons water (as needed)
- cooking oil such as peanut, grapeseed or canola (enough to deep-fry)
- dipping chilies for serving (optional)
- Cut pork into strips about 3 inches long and ¼-½ inch wide. Add Sichuan peppercorns to a mortar & pestle or spice grinder and crush partially, to a crunchy, coarse grind. Add pork strips and Sichuan pepper to a large bowl along with wine, ginger, dipping chilies (optional) and salt and combine well. Leave to marinate briefly.
- Add corn starch, flour and egg directly to the pork and mix. Add water by the tablespoon until you have a thick but stirable batter, about 4 tablespoons water.
- Add enough oil to a wok or deep pan to deep-fry about half the pork at a time, about ⅓ full for a wok. Heat oil to 325F over medium-high heat. Use long cooking chopsticks or tongs to place one strip of pork at a time into the hot oil. You know the oil is hot enough when it immediately begins to fry with a slow, steady bubble. Turn down heat if the pork is browning too quickly. As each piece cooks through and becomes light gold, remove it with your tongs to a paper-towel-lined tray. Keep adding strips as there is room and removing them as they turn light gold.
- When all strips are fried, turn heat up to a higher temperature and return about half the pork to the wok with a slotted spoon or spider. Fry at a fast, small bubble until pieces are golden brown then remove to a paper-towel-lined tray. Fry second half in same manner.
- Serve warm, with or without dipping chilies and beer.