Sichuan pepper, Szechwan pepper or Szechuan pepper, a common spice used in Asian cuisine, is derived from at least two species of the global genus Zanthoxylum, including Z. simulans and Z. bungeanum. The botanical name comes from the Greek xanthon xylon (ξανθὸν ξύλον), meaning “blond wood.” It refers to the brightly coloured sapwood possessed by several of the species. The genus belongs in the rue or citrus family, and, despite its name, is not closely related to either black pepper or chilli pepper.
The husk or hull (pericarp) around the seeds may be used whole, especially in Szechuan cuisine, and the finely ground powder is one of the blended ingredients for the five-spice powder. It is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. The pericarp is the part that is most often used, but the leaves of various species are used as well in some regions of China.
Another cousin native to China is Zanthoxylum schinifolium, called xiang-jiao-zi (香椒子, lit. “aromatic peppercorn”) or qing-hua-jiao (青花椒, lit. “greenish-black flower pepper”), used as spice in Hebei. Yet another Zanthoxylum species provides the African spice uzazi. Because all 250 or so species of the genus seem to possess at least some of the aromatic and complex chemicals that enliven food, it is likely that most Zanthoxylum species have been used at some time as a spice.
While the exact flavour and composition of different species from the Zanthoxylum genus varies, the same essential characteristics are present to some degree in most of them. Thus, while the terms “Sichuan pepper” and “sanshō” may refer specifically to Z. simulans and Z. piperitum, respectively, the most commonly used varieties of the pepper (such as these two) are interchangeable in most cases. Outside scientific literature, it is common to see the names used interchangeably or as blanket terms for whichever particular species of pepper is available.
Related species are used in the cuisines of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand and the Konkani and Toba Batak peoples. In Bhutan this pepper is known as ‘thinge’ and is used liberally in preparation of soups, gruels and phaag sha paa (pork slices).
Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black, white or chilli peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth (caused by its 3% of hydroxy alpha sanshool) that sets the stage for hot spices.
According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking (Second edition, p429) they are not simply pungent; “they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical 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.”
Recipes often suggest lightly toasting the tiny seedpods, then crushing them before adding them to food. Only the husks are used; the shiny black seeds are discarded or ignored as they have a very gritty sand-like texture. It is generally added at the last moment. Star anise and ginger are often used with it prominently in spicy Sichuan cuisine. It has an alkaline pH and a numbing effect on the lips when eaten in larger doses. Ma la (Chinese: 麻辣; pinyin: málà; literally “numbing and spicy”), common in Sichuan cooking, is a combination of Sichuan pepper and chilli pepper, and it is a key ingredient in má là hot pot, the Sichuan version of the Chinese traditional dish. It is also a common flavouring in Sichuan baked goods such as sweetened cakes and biscuits.
Sichuan pepper is also available as an oil (Chinese: 花椒油, marketed as either “Sichuan pepper oil”, “Bunge Prickly Ash Oil”, or “Hwajiaw oil”). In this form it is best used in stir-fry noodle dishes without hot spices. The preferred recipe includes ginger oil and brown sugar cooked with a base of noodles and vegetables then rice vinegar and Sichuan pepper oil are added after cooking
Hua jiao yan (simplified Chinese: 花椒盐; traditional Chinese: 花椒鹽; pinyin: huājiāoyán) is a mixture of salt and Sichuan pepper, roasted and browned in a wok and served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck and pork dishes. The peppercorns can also be lightly fried in order to make a spicy oil with various uses.
Sichuan peppercorns are one of the traditional ingredients in the Chinese spice mixture five-spice powder.
In Indonesian Batak cuisine, andaliman (a relative of Sichuan pepper) is ground and mixed with chilies and seasonings into a green sambal Tinombur or chilli paste, to accompany grilled pork, carp and other regional specialties. Arsik, a Batak dish from the Tapanuli region, uses andaliman as spice.
Sichuan pepper is one of the few spices important for Nepali (Gurkha), Tibetan and Bhutanese cookery of the Himalayas, because few spices can be grown there. One Himalayan specialty is the momo, a dumpling stuffed with vegetables, cottage cheese or minced yak meat, water buffalo meat or pork and flavoured with Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger and onion is served with tomato and Sichuan pepper based gravy. Nepalese style chow-mein are steamed and served dry, together with a fiery Sichuan pepper sauce.
It is believed that it can sanitize meat that may not be so fresh, although in reality it may only mask foul flavours. The foul-smell masking property of Sichuan pepper made it popular in offal dishes.
Availability and Substitutions
Sichuan Pepper is readily available at Asian stores and some supermarkets.
- Lemon Pepper
- Black Peppercorns
- Equal parts black peppercorns and aniseed