In Chinese and Chinese-influenced cuisines, menus commonly feature boring-sounding dishes like "salt and pepper chicken" or "salt and pepper squid." porker remembers making fun of the pedestrian connotations of "salt and pepper crab" at a Chinese restaurant, and then finding the actual dish to be "utterly delicious."
What's in this salt and pepper preparation? Often, the "pepper" refers to Sichuan peppercorn. In many Cantonese restaurants in San Francisco, the chefs make a proprietary blend of aromatic spices, including salt and Sichuan peppercorns, Melanie Wong says. The spice mix is added to more salt and cornstarch and used to dust the protein before cooking. The peppercorns are "not used in quantities large enough to cause noticeable numbing," Melanie Wong says. "But if you ask for a bit of powder on the side and give it a sniff, the floral qualities of Sichuan peppercorn are apparent."
Other times, the "pepper" might be black or white pepper, huiray says. "In my experience and expectation it would be literally black or white pepper (piper nigrum) and salt (sodium chloride) as the predominant condiments in these dishes, augmented with chile peppers, ginger, spring onions, sliced onions, etc. depending on the chef or dish," huiray says.
And in many American Chinese restaurants, the "pepper" is fresh chile pepper, JMF says. Food is dusted in cornstarch, then stir-fried in a wok on high heat. "Add hot pepper, usually jalapeño, and fry for 30 seconds, then add cornstarch dusted food and fry in the hot pepper flavored oil until just barely cooked," says JMF.