Although they look a little like black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns are not actually of the pepper family at all, but are rather the dried berry of a tree in the prickly ash family. The spice will be very familiar to aficionados of Sichuan cuisine but, aside from this, and the fact that it is a fairly standard addition to Chinese five-spice powder, it is not commonly used, or even that widely recognized in the west. In cookery books, particularly older ones, it is often called ‘fagara’ or ‘prickly mountain-ash’, but one does occasionally see it referred to as ‘Chinese pepper’, or by the Japanese name ‘Sansho’.
Although most commonly associated with Chinese food – Sichuan cookery in particular – the peppercorns are also used in Japan, Korea, Tibet and Indonesia. It should be noted however, that there are several different species all of which have slightly different chemical makeups, and thus different tastes. The Sichuanese variety (the most commonly available in the west) is Zanthoxylum piperitum, while, in Korea, Z. schinifolium, appears to be preferred. To my knowledge, Z. piperitum is the only one I have yet encountered and all of my subsequent comments will be in reference to that variety. For a more in-depth discussion of the types and their respective biochemistries, there is a very good article posted here.
In China, the spice is most widely known as 花椒 (huājiāo), which translates as flower pepper. It is also sometimes called ‘mountain pepper’ or 山椒, in some sources. The Mandarin pronunciation of this is shānjiāo and one can easily see the linguistic relationship between this and the Japanese ‘Sansho’, which has the same meaning.
Appearance and Taste
As you can see, the berries have an outer husk (pericarp)and an inner glossy-black seed. The husk color varies from a warm, reddish brown to a burnt-orange and, generally speaking, the brighter the hue the fresher the spice. By the time they have sat in your spice cupboard long enough to be a flat, dark brown they will most likely have lost the best of their flavour.
The aroma of a freshly opened package is quite aromatic with a strong woodiness and a definite hint of camphor. I have not yet seen another source describing the aroma as being camphor-like anywhere on the Internet but this is one of the more definite qualities that I recognize and I assume that this comes from some sort of combined effect of the terpinoid components. Very freshly dried berries can also have a bit of a citrusy tang when you smell them but this tends to dissipate as they age.
As for the taste… Well, the best thing I can suggest is for you to bite into a peppercorn or two and chew them well to experience the unique quality of this spice. In Sichuan cuisine, there is a particular taste ascribed to certain dishes called 麻辣 (málà), which is best translated as ‘numbing hot’. If you read this on a menu without being familiar with Sichuan peppercorns, the obvious assumption is that the berries are so spicy hot that your mouth is numbed as a result but, in fact, Sichuan peppers have no intrinsic heat at all The factor that results in the ‘má’, or numbing, effect is actually a chemical anesthetic that creates a tingling sensation at first and then, given enough of the spice, a definite numbness. The ‘là’, or heat, in málà dishes generally comes from chilies.
At first bite, Sichuan peppercorns have the same earthy-woodsy quality of the aroma, but that then gives way to the more lingering camphor notes and hints of pine-resin and mint. After a few seconds, depending on the freshness, the numbing quality begins to become apparent. Many sources describe Sichuan pepper as having a lemon-like, or citrus, quality but I think this is a misapprehension of the actual taste. There is, especially in very freshly dried berries, a citronella like taste to be sure, but, to my mind, the citric ‘tang’, if you will, is more a function of the initial tingly sensation rather than an acid effect of lemons. It is a quality that has best been described as rather like the sensation you receive by running your tongue over a low-voltage battery.
The numbing effect apparently stems from a series chemical components known collectively as ‘Sanshhools’. In her book Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavorings, Susheela Raghavan identifies these more particularly as hydroxy α and hydroxy β sanshool, but a study conducted by the Sensory Research Center, Creative Research Initiatives, in Korea concluded that only hydroxy-alpha-sanshool is responsible for the anesthetic effect. I don’t understand a good deal of what is written in that article, to be honest, but it does appear as though the effect is electrochemical in nature, which would make the tongue-to-battery analogy seem somewhat apt.
The anesthesia, however it results, is quite real and the berries have sometimes been used to cure toothaches according to some reports. I have also occasionally come across the suggestion that there is some danger to overindulgence wherein the throat can become paralyzed, but I have been unable to locate any serious study verifying that. My guess would be that, even if such a result were possible, it would likely involve amounts far greater than one is likely to encounter in any normal dish. The main ‘benefit’ of the numbing action, in the culinary sense, at least, is that it does seem to allow one to endure the fiery heat of chili in greater amounts than one might otherwise.
The berries are used both whole, ground and as an oil. The oil, known in Chinese as 花椒油 (huājiāo yóu), is made by heating the dried, and sometimes the fresh ones, with a neutral oil like canola. Commercial products are available but the process is easily undertaken in the home kitchen as well.
In Sichuan, the peppercorns are widely used in a variety of ways but are especially associated with fiery hotpot dishes as well as Kung Pao Chicken and Ma Po Doufu. In Tibet, they are often incorporated with yak or other meat in dumplings known as Momo. The Japanese, interestingly, do not just limit themselves to using the berries but also employ the leaves, which they call kinome, as well. I have actually seen them used as a garnish in Japanese restaurants although, I confess, I did not know, at the time that they come from the same plant as the more familiar peppercorns.
There are also a number of spice-blends in which the berries often appear and which I will be detailing at more length in future posts. These are:
- Sichuan Pepper-salt – A blend of salt, Sichuan pepper and sometimes common pepper that is often used as a dip, especially for fried chicken or duck;
- Chinese five-spice powder; and,
- Shichimi Togarashi – A Japanese blend with chili and other spices.
Many recipe books recommend roasting the whole peppercorns in a dry pan before using them. As with many other spices, this does indeed enhance the aroma but you really only need do it when using them when later ground as a condiment , or when adding the whole, or ground, in the later stages of cooking. If they are first tempered in hot oil before adding the main ingredients, this initial roasting can be omitted.
One rather unpleasant aspect of the berries is that the seed has a rather gritty texture. This is especially true with the whole berry wherein biting into the seed is a bit like chewing on fragments of hard plastic or glass. Even when ground in a mortar, the finished product can still be gritty, although an electric mill can do away with the worst of this. Fortunately, however, it turns out that most of the chemical constituents giving rise to the taste reside in the hull and you can remove these if you wish. This is a bit of a fiddly process, of course, and if you wish to avoid that labor, as well as the grittiness of the seed, you can always just use an oil preparation. Personally, though I like the visual appeal of the whole berries in Kung Pao Chicken and other dishes.
Finally, as with other spices, Sichuan peppercorns should be stored in a cool, dry place out of the light. They should be stored whole and only ground just prior to use as the taste compounds will quickly degrade after grinding. For that reason, I would avoid buying it in ground form. I have used berries that were six months old without there being too serious a loss of quality but anything over a year or so is probably too long.