Sichuan pepper is a backbone ingredient in authentic Sichuan cuisine profile. This article provides a complete guide to what's it, how to use, how to buy and how to store.
What is Sichuan Pepper
Sichuan pepper, both whole and ground, is a key ingredient in authentic Sichuan cuisine profile, from soups to stir-fry to dipping sauces, almost for every dish, no matter spicy or non-spicy, with the features of tongue numbness and pungent aromatic fragrance. As a member of the citrus family, it is known as huajiao (花椒) in Chinese, prickly ash, or flower peppercorn, but neither similar nor close to Western white/black peppers. The best Sichuan peppers are, of course, produced in Sichuan and nearby regions in China.
Sichuan pepper's best friend is chili pepper. Once working together, they create the most famous Sichuan mala flavor with tingly numbing and spicy hot taste, the backbone of Sichuan foods.
There are two kinds of Sichuan peppers in popular cooking uses: red (红花椒) and green (青红椒). A common misunderstanding is the green one will become red if grow longer. Actually, the green is completely different from red and never becomes red. They even have different chemical components which contribute to their own numbness and aroma. The green one is more aromatic in smell, but slightly less in numbness, while the red is richer in taste. That's why the green one is also called aromatic Sichuan pepper. One variety of green Sichuan pepper is tengjiao (藤椒) in Chinese, whose name comes from its rattan-like or vine-like tree shape. It is also called zhuyejiao (竹叶椒) because its leaves look like bamboo leaves. Tengjiao is bigger in size and richer in oil. It is becoming more and more popular to season fresh and green dishes in Sichuan. See this CCTV video for more about tengjiao
The aroma and taste are exactly the same as what you feel when you smell and bite a few pieces and chew them well slowly. The taste is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper. Instead, it creates a tingly numbness in the mouth. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: "they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion." A recent research has shown that a molecule in peppercorn activates our cells' touch receptors, making the numbing sensation feel like that of a 50 hertz vibration.
Sichuan pepper has an outer husk or pericarp and an inner black seed. The interior black seed has an unpleasant gritty texture, a taste of sand, and thus is discarded or is not directly used for cooking. The skin of the outer husk has many warty projection points of oil which are the source of numbness and aroma. If lack of those oil bubbles, the peppercorn should be very weak in numbness and weak in smell as well.
Sichuan pepper's color will become darker with time, and at the same time, the aroma and numbness become weaker. Sichuan peppers in local US grocery stores usually are not fresh enough, having only somewhat numbing, but lacking the fragrance.
How to Use Sichuan Pepper
Sichuan pepper is a very versatile spice. It can be used in various ways whole, grounded or as oil
- Whole. To braise dishes, stir-fry whole peppercorns with doubanjiang and chili peppers at the beginning. To lightly but quickly stir fry vegetables, such as water spinach, Chinese broccoli, bok choy, pea sprouts e.t.c, stir-fry whole peppercorns and whole chili peppers before adding the vegetables. Whole peppercorns is the best for the famous Sichuan mala hot pots and the best to make Sichuan style saussage by adding to the chopped pork.
- Chopped. Chopped Sichuan pepper is the best to add on top of Suizhu beef ("boiled" beef) and Suizhu fish fillets at the end stage.
- Grounded. Grounded Sichuan pepper powder is the best to sprinkle on Mapo tofu at the end of cooking.
- Fresh: Fresh, wet Sichuan pepper is the best for dishes whose maon ingredients are so tender that dry peppercorns are too strong to flavor them.
- Oil. Sichuan pepper oil is the best way to store Sichuan pepper for longer time. It is also the best for dishes to have good looking.
Sichuan pepper can be used as easy as black pepper, and the scope is unlimited. Typical examples are
- drop a few whole pieces into soups during cooking
- sauté with chili broad bean paste for stir-fry dishes
- toss some powder on finished dishes
- mix some powder into dipping sauces
In general, Sichuan pepper can be applied to any dish that is fairly spicy.
Sichuan pepper can be also simply used in non-Sichuan dishes, such as adding the powder to make "Sichuan pepper ice cream", or even toss on pizza with chili flakes to make a surprising mala (numbing and spicy) pizza. You may be surprised at how easy to make mala sandwiches by adding the powder in the same way as you add black pepper. Adding some peppercorn oil to your salad may create an amazing special taste. Add Sichuan pepper infused salt to replace salt and black pepper for French fries. Possibilities are unlimited.
How to Buy Sichuan Peppers
As a general guide to shopping, it's better to pick one that has no or less black seeds and its husks have both bright color as well as obvious warty projections of oil packets. Otherwise, it would be better to take a bottle of Sichuan pepper oil instead.
From 1968, the US government banned the importation of Sichuan peppercorns due to concerns it could cause the spread of a citrus canker, seriously damaging citrus crops in the US, until in 2005, the USDA and FDA lifted the ban, provided the peppercorns are heated to around 70°C (158°F) to kill any canker bacteria before import.
Nowadays, you may still have hard time to find this spice at local market.
Most Asian stores carry packed whole peppercorns, and/or peppercorn powders. Unfortunately, many brands may have no English name on the label at all. The selection below are originated from Sichuan and is widely available in Asian groceries. They are acceptable if they do not stay too long on the store shelves.
As an alternative, Sichuan pepper oil is the easiest way to add the flavor to any cold or hot dishes. Especially, tengjiao is only available in oil form in US market. The following bottles are originated from Sichuan and made from three types of Sichuan peppers: red Sichuan pepper, green Sichuan pepper and tengjiao Sichuan pepper.
Our best recommendation is the Premium Green Sichuan Peppercorn and Premium Red Sichuan Peppercorn from PosharpStore.com. The website says: This premium quality green Sichuan peppercorn is also called aromatic peppercorn or qing huajiao(青花椒) in Chinese. It leaves a deep numbness on your palate and a subtle pungent aromatic fragrance in smell. A real challenging to your tongue and nose! You'll find yourself coming up with all kinds of excuses to add it to your dishes. Unfortunately, those products are out of stock for an uncertain time every year.
How to Store Sichuan Pepper
Whole Sichuan pepper can last for a few years if it is stored in an airtight container in a dry, cool place. Because its taste and smell both become weaker with time, the freshest ones are always the best (less than one year after harvest).
The best way to save Sichuan pepper is to infuse it into cooking oil and save the oil for later use. To make Sichuan pepper oil, toast Sichuan pepper, add cooking oil, heat for a few minutes on low heat, and then let it infuse for a few hours. Strain and keep the infused oil in the fridge.
Grounded peppercorn powder loses flavor much quicker. It should be stored in airtight container and should be used within a few weeks.
Sichuan Pepper Powders
Sichuan pepper is one of the five ingredients that makes up five spice powder (the others are star anise, fennel, clove, and cinammon), a blend staple in Chinese cooking.
There are two ways to prepare Sichuan pepper powders - uncooked and cooked. When Sichuan pepper is heated/roasted to a certain extent, it releases its own unique aroma. The powder grounded from the freshly roasted delivers stronger pleasing fragrance, while uncooked powder is stronger in numbness. To make roasted powder, drop Sichuan peppers into a frying pan or dry skillet on medium-low heat, and shake pan slowly and consistently, until they begin to change color and become fragrant. When cooled, grind peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, or crush with a rolling pin or a coffee grinder and save the powder in a airtight jar.
Sichuan pepper powder is usually sprinkled on finished dishes.
Sichuan Pepper Salt
Sichuan pepper salt is a blend of salt and Sichuan pepper, serving as a table salt or making a few famous dishes. To make the pepper salt
- Mix together the 6 tablespoon salt and the 3 tablespoon peppercorns.
- Heat in a heavy frying skillet over medium-low to low heat, shaking the pan continuously, until smoke appears and the peppercorns are aromatic.
- Blend it in a blender or food processor until the peppercorns are crushed.
- Store the blend in a sealed jar at room temperature.