Szechuan peppercorn (also spelled Sichuan) is a fragrant but mouth-numbing spice. The aroma of Szechuan peppercorn has been likened to lavender. However, its main claim to fame is the powerful numbing sensation it causes around the mouth. When married with chili peppers (the other key ingredient in Szechuan cuisine), chefs believe this numbing effect reduces the chili pepper’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the chili'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.
Origins of Szechuan Peppercorn
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, and it is not related to chili peppers (genus Capsicum). It consists of the pinkish-red dried outer husks of the prickly ash shrub of the genus Zanthoxylum.
The husks around the seeds are what is used for the Szechuan peppercorn spice. They can be used whole or ground into powder. The name comes from the Sichuan province of northern China, which formerly was spelled Szechuan in English.
The spice is also known as Szechuan (Sichuan) pepper, flower pepper, flower peppercorn, hot pepper, prickly ash, and hua jiao.
The Science of Why Your Mouth Tingles with Szechuan Peppercorn
Szechuan peppercorns contain the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. Like capsaicin in chili peppers, it interacts with nerve cell receptors in your lips and mouth. It excites the touch sensors and the confusing sensation feels like numbness. Researchers pinpointed the Meissner receptors. 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.
Culinary Uses of Szechuan Peppercorn
Recipes frequently call for the peppercorns to be ground and roasted. You may want to discard the tiny black seeds if you see them as they can be gritty. 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.
Buying Szechuan Peppercorns
Szechuan peppercorns were banned from being imported 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 band was lifted for Szechuan peppercorn that has been heat-treated to kill the infectious organisms.
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. After purchase, store Szechuan peppercorn in a sealed jar away from light.