If you love the pungency, heat, flavor and aroma of Sichuan cooking, then you are likely to be a lover of the Sichuan peppercorn. It is an ingredient that is synonymous with that cuisine, and provides one of its most distinct and delicious qualities.
Fans of food history might be interested to learn that the use of Sichuan peppercorn in Chinese food and drink dates back more than two thousand years. It was actually widely used until the 16th century, when its appeal waned in other parts of the country, while remaining popular in Sichuan province. As a condiment in Sichuan cuisine, it was used not just to flavor savory dishes, but also tea and wine. Aside from their culinary use, Sichuan peppercorns were also used at different points in Chinese history as tokens of affection, as components of rituals and ceremonies, as ingredients in embalming mixtures, as incense, and as a remedy to relieve toothache. (You will understand that last usage when we get into its numbing quality a little later on.)
Sichuan peppercorn (also known as Sichuan pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, Szechuan pepper, huā jiāo or 花椒 in Chinese, and sansho in Japanese) is biologically completely different from both chili pepper and black peppercorn. It comes from a prickly ash shrub plant that is native to China and Taiwan. Similar plants also grow in other parts of Asia, including Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Himalayas. What we call the “peppercorn” is actually the berry of this prickly ash shrub, which interestingly is a member of the citrus family of plants. That familial relationship might explain why it is so aromatic.
The berries open naturally as they dry and release the small black seeds which are contained in the husks. These seeds are bitter and gritty, and must therefore be separated from the husks, along with any remaining thorns or twigs, to produce the final product. That final product consists purely of the fragrant and spicy berry husks.
Aside from its distinctive taste, what makes the Sichuan peppercorn truly unique is the almost magical effect it has on our tongues. Rather than burning our tongues with heat, the Sichuan peppercorn delights them with a tingling sensation that is really not found in any other spice. The experience more closely resembles drinking a highly carbonated, effervescent soda or seltzer than an actual food taste experience. If you are a science buff, you might be interested to learn that this sensation is produced by a molecule called hydroxyl-alpha sanshool. This molecule interacts with neurons that are developed to sense touch. That interaction strangely produces a similar effect to a mild local anesthetic. (Remember the toothache remedy mentioned earlier?)
This tingling, almost numbing, sensation, when combined with the heat from chilies, has been given the special name of málà in Chinese. Málà refers to a flavor that is both numbing (ma 麻) and spicy (la 辣). This pairing of Sichuan peppercorns with chili peppers is what Sichuan cooking is best known and most loved for worldwide. It is said that the addition of the numbing effect makes the consumption of more spicy chilis possible, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two ingredients. The more your mouth tingles, the less noticeable the burn from the chilis becomes, making their flavor and aroma easier to appreciate.
It should be noted that the spice’s numbing effect won’t be noticeable if it is used in small quantities. In recipes that ask for a small amount, it instead imparts a nuanced, unique flavor to the dish. In these instances, the Sichuan peppercorn is usually added to a marinade or a braising liquid, allowing its flavor to be extracted.
Sichuan peppercorns can be used either whole in dishes or first ground into a powder. The powder is one of the five ingredients that make up five-spice powder (the others being star anise, fennel seed, clove, and cinnamon). The peppercorns should be roasted first before grinding, to make them more aromatic. When making your own powder, heat the peppercorns in a shallow pan over medium-low heat until they are fragrant. Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool completely before grinding them with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. If necessary, sift with a sieve to end up with a fine powder, leaving any remaining bits of husk behind. Sichuan peppercorn powder may be found in stores, and is more convenient than grinding your own, but its taste will be inferior.
When cooking with the whole peppercorns, while it is common practice to not remove them from the dish prior to serving, they really should not be eaten. Think of them as whole cloves or whole cardamom pods; there is nothing actually wrong with biting into one, but the intensity of the experience may detract from the enjoyment of the dish.
Aside from five-spice powder, other condiments commonly found in Chinese cooking which contain Sichuan peppercorn include jiāo yán (a salt and Sichuan pepper spice mix) and huā jiāo yóu (a Sichuan pepper infused oil).
If you do not have access to Sichuan peppercorns, their flavor is quite difficult to substitute. Some would say it is impossible. No other spice will really impart that unique tingly numbness that it provides. One possible substitute that comes somewhat close in flavor (though not in sensation) is a combination of freshly ground black pepper and coriander seeds. Another possibility is tellicherry peppercorn, if you can find it. Tellicherry is a variety of black pepper that is allowed to ripen longer than the ordinary variety, giving it a deeper flavor and aroma. But you should really do your best to try to find the original!
Below is a sampling of vegan recipes that use Sichuan peppercorns. Give them a try so you too can experience this unique spice.