Szechuan cuisine wouldn’t be the same without the Szechuan "peppercorn." It is actually not a pepper at all. Instead, it is the pinkish-red dried outer husk of the Chinese prickly ash shrub.
While the Szechuan peppercorn has an unusual fragrance, it is best known for the numbing, tingling sensation it causes around the mouth when eaten. It is often incorporated in five-spice powder, as well as many spicy Szechuan dishes.
The Peppercorn Ban
In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned imports of Szechuan peppercorns for nearly 40 years. This was due to concerns that it could cause the spread of a citrus canker which would seriously damage citrus crops in Florida, California, and other areas. Even during this time, Szechuan peppercorns could be found throughout the country because officials only began seriously enforcing the ban in the early 2000s.
In January 2004, the U.S. government partially lifted the ban on imports of Szechuan peppercorn. This allowed those peppercorns that had been heat-treated to kill the bacteria into the country. Nonetheless, many people still have trouble finding this elusive spice.
If you're looking for it, here are several suggestions on where you can buy Szechuan peppercorn.
While most Asian markets carry Szechuan peppercorn, it can still be hard to find. The problem is that companies selling the spice use different English names on the packaging. Look for names like:
- Dried prickly ash
- Dehydrated prickly ash
- Dried peppercorn
- Flower pepper
- Indonesian lemon pepper
The easiest thing to do is to ask your grocer for the spice by its Chinese (Mandarin) name, hua jiao. They will know what you’re looking for and whether or not they carry it.
In any event, Szechuan peppercorn is simple to recognize. The distinctive pinkish-red seed husks are sold in clear plastic bags alongside star anise and other Chinese spices and seasonings.
Chinese Herb Shops
If you're in Chinatown or have a shop nearby, another option is to stop by a Chinese herb shop. Szechuan peppercorn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, so they might have it in stock.
While you probably won't have much luck searching for Szechuan peppercorn at the local supermarket, many spice merchants now carry it. It's typically under the name Szechuan peppercorn or Szechuan pepper.
Penzey's and Dean & Deluca are two well-known spice shops that have been known to carry Szechuan peppercorns. They're good stores to check with to see if it's currently available.
A few retailers also offer it in a salt blend or with other varieties of whole peppercorns. For instance, Penzey's website has listings for both Szechuan peppercorns and roasted Szechuan pepper salt. With the latter, you will want to reduce any salt the recipe you're using calls for since it's already in the blend.
Of course, there's always the convenient option of shopping for the spice online. A quick search for "Szechuan peppercorn" or "Sichuan peppercorn" will provide you with a number of retailers who offer it.