Classic dishes of Szechuan cuisine wouldn't be the same without Szechuan peppercorn. When this fragrant but mouth-numbing spice is married with chile peppers (the other key ingredient in Szechuan cuisine), chefs believe this numbing effect reduces the chile pepper’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the chile's intense, fruity flavor. The Szechuan peppercorn by itself does not have more spicy hotness than black peppercorns, but the mouth tingle acts to enhance tastes.
What Is Szechuan Peppercorn?
Szechuan peppercorn is a spice produced from the husks of seeds of two species of the prickly ash shrub (Zanthoxylum), which is in the rue or citrus family. The pinkish-red husks around the seeds are used for the Szechuan peppercorn spice, while the inner black seed is discarded as it is too gritty and would be sand-like when eaten. Szechuan peppercorns can be used whole or ground into powder. The spice is one of the five ingredients that comprise five-spice powder (the others are star anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon), and it's used in many savory Szechuan dishes.
Before hot chiles were brought to China from the New World, Szechuan peppercorn and ginger were used to give heat to dishes in Northern Chinese cuisine. Many people are surprised to learn that Szechuan peppercorn isn't really a pepper at all. It doesn't come from Piper nigrum as does black pepper (native to India), and it is not related to chili peppers (genus Capsicum), which are native to the Americas.
The prickly ash shrub species that are used to produce Szechuan peppercorn are native to China and Taiwan, and relatives of the pant are grown in the Himalayan region, Thailand, and Indonesia. The name comes from the Sichuan province of northern China, which formerly was spelled "Szechuan" in English. The northern China peppercorn is Z. bungeanum while that native to eastern China and Taiwan is Z. simulans.
What Does It Taste Like?
The aroma of Szechuan peppercorn has been likened to lavender. On the tongue, the first taste is bitter, then numbing heat, followed by citrus. Its main claim to fame is the powerful numbing sensation it causes around the mouth. Szechuan peppercorns contain the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. Like capsaicin in chili peppers, it interacts with nerve cell receptors in your lips and mouth. (Researchers pinpointed the Meissner receptors.) It excites the touch sensors and the confusing sensation feels like numbness. The chemical triggers the receptors, causing them to fire a message to your brain that the area is being touched. With enough stimulation, it feels like the area has gone numb.
Cooking With Szechuan Peppercorn
Recipes frequently call for the peppercorns to be roasted and ground. First, check the peppercorns and discard any twigs, leaves, and the tiny black seeds. Then heat the peppercorns in a frying pan over medium-low heat until they become fragrant. Remove them from the heat and grind them or crush them when cool. The roasted peppercorns can also be saved in an airtight jar to grind when needed in a recipe.
Recipes With Szechuan Peppercorn
Szechuan peppercorn is featured in numerous savory meat, poultry, and noodle dishes. Ground, roasted Szechuan peppercorn is used to make an infused Szechuan peppercorn oil. It is also paired with salt to make a flavorful Szechuan pepper salt to serve as a condiment with meat dishes.
If you don't have access to Szechuan peppercorn, the alternative is to use freshly ground black pepper and coriander seeds. Tellicherry peppercorn can be a good substitute if you have it available. It is a variety of black pepper that is left to ripen longer and develop more flavor and aroma. Grains of paradise can also be used (doubling the amount called for in the recipe).
Where to Buy Szechuan Peppercorn
You can find Szechuan peppercorn at Asian markets and specialty spice purveyors. It may be sold under different names, such as dried prickly ash, dehydrated prickly ash, dried peppercorn, flower pepper, Indonesian lemon pepper, or the Mandarin name of hua jiao.
Szechuan peppercorns were banned from import to the U.S. from 1968 to 2004, although the ban was only seriously enforced in the later years. It was enacted to prevent the spread of citrus canker, which could damage U.S. citrus crops but does not cause disease in humans. This ban was lifted for Szechuan peppercorn that has been heat-treated to kill the infectious organisms.
After purchase, store Szechuan peppercorn in a sealed jar away from light. The whole peppercorns will retain their flavor. Ground pepper should be used as soon as possible as it will lose its more complex flavor and aroma.
Benefits of Szechuan Peppercorn
Using Szechuan peppercorn and other spices allows you to add flavor to foods that would otherwise be bland. As only small amounts are used on food, the nutritional benefit is negligible, but these peppercorns are high in antioxidant activity. In traditional Chinese medicine, Szechuan peppercorn was used to stimulate digestion and prevent flatulence.