In a recent ‘Spice Pages’ post featuring Sichuan Peppercorns, I mentioned that the pepper is sometimes used in the form of an oil that can be either prepared at home or purchased as a commercial product. I picked up the bottle you see above on a recent trip to Montreal and it has been sitting on a shelf for the past two months. This is the first time I have ever bought Sichuan Pepper Oil, though I have made my own in the past, and this week I finally opened the bottle to investigate…
This product is produced in the People’s Republic of China and there is very little English on the bottle at all. The contents are identified by the large red characters arranged vertically on the front label, which read 生花椒油 (Pinyin: shēng huājiāo yóu). Those who read the Peppercorn post will recall that the most common name for Sichuan Pepper in China is ‘Flower Pepper’ and that 花椒油 translates as ‘flower pepper oil’. The ‘生’ character can mean life, or living (and is often erroneously translated as the latter on some Chinese menus) but in the culinary context it means raw or unprocessed.
I can’t quite be sure what the brand name of this product is; I suspect that the ‘Green Food’ mark under the green logo on the left is just some sort of claim to environmental friendliness. The most likely candidate for the brand, as far as I can guess, is the two characters on the red background just above the生花椒油. The right-most character, 紅 (hóng) means red, while the other, 黎, pronounced ‘lí’ can mean, many, or black, and is also a surname. I could not find any compound words made up of these two characters and I would be happy if any readers could shed some light on the proper translation.
The back label lists, amongst a few other things, the ingredients, storage particulars and some suggested uses. The ingredients (the red characters at the very top of the label) are fairly simple and consist only of rapeseed (canola) oil and Sichuan pepper. Again, the ‘生’ character is used which suggests that green peppercorns, rather than the dried, are used.
The suggested uses (listed under the second set of red characters) recommend usage in: cold blends (salads), noodles (three different kinds are specified), seafood, dumplings, dips with lamb or pork, hotpots, mala (numbing hot) bean curd, and Sichuan or other regional baked or braised dishes.
The production date is stamped as March 2011 and an 18-month shelf life is suggested but, as I discuss below, this might be a bit ambitious.
Appearance and Taste
The color, as is apparent in the first picture above, is the same pretty green as a Greek olive oil, which would tend to support the claim that raw, green peppercorns are used in the production. If dried berries were used, I would expect the color to be much more of a reddish-brown. Unfortunately though, the clarity is less than perfect, being a little cloudy, which suggests that the oil may have oxidized a little, possibly giving the lie to the shelf life claim on the label.
On opening, the aroma is almost exactly the same as taking a good whiff of the dried berries… a unique peppery, citrus and camphor experience that is difficult to describe with any precision. I could also smell the oil that forms the base and it had that faint smell of some types of house paint that usually indicates a slight oxidation. It was fairly mild though and not quite at the point of indicating rancidity.
I tasted a few drops straight from the bottle and for a few seconds or so could only taste the oil… again with that faint undertone of house-paint. After a moment, the taste of the pepper came through and was then quickly taken over by the signature numbing effect that seemed to focus its action along the sides of my tongue. The flavor was very much the same as the dried berry but a little more muted, I thought.
To Come …
I have a couple of immediate ideas for dishes I want to try and which I will posts as ‘Experiments’ posts in the near future. I also think it may be interesting to make up a batch of home-made pepper oil using the dried berries and do an actual taste comparison.