this thing's incredible

The Salty-Sweet Spice Blend That I Have to Hide From My Roommates

Photo: Courtesy of the author

When I moved from the northwest to the northeast of England for university, I was prepared for things to change — new slang, new weather, new friends (hopefully). I hadn’t stopped to consider how regional the food in my town would be. So when I reached the front of the line at the local Chinese takeaway, I didn’t understand why they didn’t sell my absolute favorite dish. “Where’s the salt-and-pepper chicken?” I frantically asked the group of bewildered students surrounding me. I received only quizzical looks.

Now, I know what they must have been thinking (you’re no doubt thinking it, too): What? Who can’t put salt and pepper on some chicken at home? But the title can be misleading, depending on where you’re from. The salt-and-pepper seasoning I was looking for is actually a Cantonese blend of nine spices: sea salt, sugar, garlic, crushed chili, white pepper, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, aniseed, and cloves. In Liverpool, where I’m from, it’s a delicacy rooted in the long-standing Chinese immigrant community, and served in fish and chip shops, too. Locals (known as Scousers) sprinkle it on almost anything, but it’s best when it coats chicken or fries. It imparts a unique flavor: slightly salty, sweet, spicy, and mouth-watering. It has the power to make even the most mundane dishes taste special.

I’d had no idea that the seasoning was so hard to find in England outside Liverpool. When I relayed this news to my mum — as I walked home from the takeaway, sans chicken — she said she’d send a care package with some salt-and-pepper seasoning. She often cooks with it at home.

She sent a tub from a company called KMC, which you’ll find in most kitchen cupboards in Liverpool. The KMC blend tastes the most like the flavor you get from a local takeaway. And when it comes down to cost, one tub — with enough servings to last for a few months — is roughly the same price as one takeaway. As anyone watching their spending, you can’t argue with that.

Over time, though, I started to notice my supplies of the seasoning dwindling at unprecedented rates. Salt-and-pepper dishes have this enticing smell, and before long, my flatmates, who’d not heard of the seasoning before, started picking up chicken from my plate. I’d come home to find the flat smelling suspiciously like my old favorite takeaways, and my seasoning tub feeling a few servings lighter. I’d accidentally given my Londoner housemates a salt-and-pepper dependency, and it’s happened in every home since. That Christmas, I started gifting pots of KMC salt-and-pepper seasoning. They thought I’d done it out of the goodness of my own heart, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I did it so they’d keep their hands off mine.

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You Really Can Put This Cantonese Spice Blend on Everything