“But is that Sichuan peppercorn in your Sichuanese dish actually a Sichuan pepper, or is it something else?” That was the question I set out to answer when I started this blog series on peppercorns.
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this question and investigating it in the field, in markets, and in my own kitchen. And I’ve discovered that there’s no simple answer.
The truth is, many different plants are labeled as “Sichuan peppercorns” in Chinese markets, restaurants, and recipes. These include a number of species of the genus Zanthoxylum (including Z. simulans, Z. bungeanum, and Z. piperitum), as well as other species like Xanthoxylum americanum (prickly ash) and several species of Alpinia (galangal). But despite their differences, these plants are all commonly referred to as hua jiao (Sichuan pepper) in China.
What does this mean for cooks? It means that you can’t be sure what you’re getting when you buy pre-ground Sichuan peppercorns from an Asian market or online retailer. What you need to know is
I just glanced at the Wikipedia page for Sichuan cuisine and noticed a huge discrepancy: the use of “Sichuan pepper” in the Chinese name and in the article’s text, versus “Szechuan pepper” in the title of Zanthoxylum piperitum. Now I have to wonder: is that Sichuan peppercorn in my Sichuanese dish actually a true Sichuan peppercorn?
I’d been going about my life thinking that all Sichuan peppercorns are created equal. But when looking closer, it turns out that China produces many types of peppercorns — including the variety used in the spicy dishes of Hunan Province, which is also known as “Szechwan pepper.” A few very different species go by “Sichuan pepper,” and if you’re eating them, you need to be aware that they may contain compounds which are toxic to humans.
To make matters more confusing, there’s also a species called Zanthoxylum simulans, which has no toxic compounds; this species is what’s commonly eaten by people in Sichuan Province. The editors at Wikipedia say that it’s difficult to tell these two varieties apart; they even look nearly identical! So how do you know
Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns but the dried husks of the fruit of a tree in the rue family. They have a mouth-numbing and tongue-tingling quality from a compound called hydroxy-alpha sanshool. Sanshools are hydrocarbon chains with a phenolic head group, and they are structurally similar to capsaicinoids, the compounds that give chili peppers their heat. A dish seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns is known as ma la, or “numbing and hot.”
In China, the vast majority of dishes seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns come from Sichuan province (the name means “four rivers”). But many dishes seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns in America don’t come from Sichuan (which isn’t surprising), or even from China (which is). This is partly because of the large number of Chinese immigrant populations in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia that have adapted Chinese dishes to local tastes. These countries also have their own types of “ma la” cuisine (which I will talk about later). It’s also because chefs all over the world are now making their own versions of “Sichuanese” food.
What all these places
The fight against fraud is a longstanding one, and it’s also often an uphill battle. As centuries of literature attest, there are many ways to fudge things and many incentives to do so. Hence it has always been the case that some people will sell you what isn’t really Sichuan peppercorn.
But let’s talk about how to tell the difference. If you were to go out into the forest and find a wild growing Sichuan pepper bush (you probably could), you could look at the leaves and see that they’re compound, with five leaflets like a hand and a “thumb” on the end.
The berries when they’re young are green and as they ripen, turn from red to orange-red in color. The berries themselves contain little black seeds inside them which, when ground up can stain your fingers dark brown if you smush them between your fingers.
The berries grow in clusters that start off looking like this:
and then eventually ripen and turn red like this:
You can see where the stem is attached right there in the middle of the berry cluster pictured above. You might not know what it looks like if you’ve never seen it before (I didn’t) but once you do, it’s
In Sichuanese cuisine, the most popular peppercorn is the hua jiao (花椒), or flower pepper. It has a unique flavor and aroma that can be described as citrusy, floral, and minty, with a numbing and tingling sensation on the tongue similar to carbonated soda. Hua jiao is used in both hot and cold dishes, and is often combined with other spices such as fennel, star anise, dried chilies, and bay leaves to make Sichuan pepper powder.
Hua jiao is also called huajiao (花椒) in Mandarin Chinese. In Taiwan, it is known as the “sauce-aromatic pepper” (酱香胡椒) or the “flower pepper” (花椒). In English, it is sometimes referred to as the “Sichuan peppercorn,” but technically speaking it is not a peppercorn at all. The plant belongs to the same family of plants that bear cashews, mangoes, pistachios, sumac berries and poison ivy.
The Sichuan peppercorn (Chinese: 花椒; pinyin: huājiāo), aka Szechuan peppercorns, is one of the most widely used spices in Chinese cooking. Yet, despite its importance and popularity, this spice has always been shrouded in mystery and confusion. Whether it’s the debate over whether it’s “Szechuan” or “Sichuan”, the questions about its scientific name, or the controversy over it being banned by the FDA in 1968, this spice has probably more questions than answers. In this article, we will attempt to clear up some of these mysteries.
The first thing that comes up when you search for “Sichuan peppercorn” is the question of whether it’s spelled “Szechuan” or “Sichuan”. The answer is actually quite simple: they are both correct. This is because they are two different romanization systems. The former is based on the Wade–Giles system, which was developed by Thomas Wade in 1859 and further modified by Herbert Giles in 1892. It was the main system used to romanize Cantonese until 1979 and Mandarin until 1969. The latter is based on Hanyu Pinyin, which
The name “Sichuan peppercorn” is a misnomer, as it is not related to the pepper plant. The “peppercorns” are commonly reddish-brown, flat, and thin, with a round section about 3 mm (0.12 in) across. They have a distinctive aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black, white or chili peppers. Instead, Sichuan pepper has slight lemony overtones and creates a “tingly-numbing” sensation that sets the stage for hot spices.
Sichuan pepper is employed in traditional Chinese medicine. Some varieties of Sichuan pepper can cause numbness if used in excess; some people are particularly sensitive to this effect.
The first character xi (“Happy”) in the name Xīhuānjiā (“Happy Ring”), references the numbing sensation of consuming Sichuan pepper.