Numbing Sichuan Pepper

“The Szechuan pepper give me more pleasure than anything else at Otter Farm…It’s a heavy aroma, lightened to varying degrees, depending on variety, by a citrusy brightness.”

Mark Diacono, A Year at Otter Farm

I first discovered Sichuan pepper while I was travelling around China with my daughter. Naturally, with Saucy Dressings in mind, I was getting a lot of pleasure investigating the various local cuisines. It’s a huge country and there is a lot to discover – from the interesting and the exotic through to the downright weird…and even (chicken’s claws, camel hoof….) to the little bit off-putting.

Sichuan cuisine

The food in Sichuan (also spelt Szechuan and Szechwan) was characterised by a very peculiar zingy sort of flavour… or more accurately, sensation. The food here is spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant.

Sichuan cuisine
They like their beef in Sichuan…. here you can see copious amounts about to be boiled with chilli and Sichuan flower pepper. I hate to think what the UK H&S police might have to say about this restaurant….

The numbing effect and the taste of Sichuan pepper

One ingredient contributes to most of these characteristics and that is the local ‘pepper’, which has a fresh and fragrant, slightly lemony taste – according to Christine McFadden in her highly recommended book, Pepper, its taste is “a cross between dried orange peel and lemon zest”.

However, it’s really famous for a sort of tongue-numbing effect known as ‘ma’ in Chinese ( 麻). As McFadden goes on to say, this effect can be quite addictive:

“The heady aroma from a freshly opened jar and the sensation that comes from nibbling one of the tiny husks are enough to induce mild euphoria. At first the spice delivers an intense citrus woodsy flavour, sweetish to begin with, then resinous, and then slightly acidic like lemon sherbet. It’s not hot….however, as the late American food guru Waverley Root wrote: ‘[it] lets itself be swallowed innocently and then smites you with a heat wave when you are off your guard'”

Sichuan pepper contains a chemical called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool which is responsible for achieving this effect. For more on the chemistry behind this effect go to the Smithsonian website.

Sichuan pepper is not a pepper, and it’s not a peppercorn

Szechuan pepper (xanthoxylum peperitum – sometimes spelt with a ‘z’ rather than an ‘x’), which comes from a type of prickly ash tree, is native to China, and it’s not related to the ‘normal’ ubiquitous black pepper (piper nigrum – see Tom Alcott’s briefing on pepper for more on the different types of pepper).

It is, however, related to the citrus family which explains the lemony taste – and in Indonesia its called Indonesian lemon pepper. It’s closely related to xanthoxylum piperitum aka Sansho – one of the few spices used in Japanese cuisine – where the leaves and flowers are used rather than the husks. It’s the husks which are used everywhere else –  but in Japan this is considered to be a bit ‘rough’. However, just as Sichuan pepper is an essential ingredient of Chinese Five Spice (more on that below), Sancho is one of the seven spices in the Japanese classic spice mix, shichimi togarashi.

But in most places, just the husk (the pericarp) is used, which will have turned a lovely deep rose colour. In the process of ripening it splits open to release the black life, the seeds, it has hitherto held within it over the surrounding ground. The seeds fall out and – as you can see from the image, it’s the rose-tinged empty husks which remain. The seeds are no loss, as the flavour is in the husk, and the seeds, in any case, are a bit gritty. However, if you are growing this ‘pepper’ for yourself, Mark Diacono recommends (in the book I quote from at the top of this post) harvesting them slightly earlier when they still contain the seed because he advises that the pepper grinder deals with them better when the husks and seeds are still entire – on the other hand, Christine McFadden warns against this, reporting that even ground seeds are ‘unpleasantly gritty and stick in your teeth’.

Uses of Sichuan pepper

Ground up, Sichuan pepper is one of the elements in Chinese five spice powder (the others are star anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon). Try a bracing sprinkling over fried potatoes.

Sichuan pepper is a flavour enhancer – it will make sugary food taste sweeter, and emphasise further the flavour-enhancing effect of salt. In Sichuan it is often paired with chilli, the theory being that the Sichuan pepper has a cooling effect on the chilli…. I can’t say I noticed that, it all seemed very hot to my unschooled European tongue!

To tame the numbing effect of Sichuan flower pepper a little, as well as to strengthen its enhancing ability, it’s a good thing to dry fry it.

Sichuan pepper is very good:

  • added to salted, sugared walnuts
  • dry-fry and crush with salt. Use to give a whole new dimension to popcorn!
  • to infuse to make an orange oil
  • in a famous Sichuan hot and spicy soup called Malatang (麻辣烫). Go to the FooDragon site for more on that. ‘Ma’ means ‘numbing’, ‘la’ means ‘spicy, hot’ and ‘tang’ means ‘soup’ – this is a soup made with chilli and the orange Sichuan pepper flower oil.
  • added to rock salt and other spices as a condiment, or added to dips
  • the fresh, citrusy zing is especially good with rich meats like duck or pork
  • pound in a pestle and mortar with spring onions and sea salt; add a bit of thick, good-quality soy sauce and some sesame oil and serve as a sauce for cold chicken or meat.
  • as the Sichuanese do – added ubiquitously to absolutely everything
  • its lemony flavour means it pairs well with dark chocolate
  • and, I discovered to my delight, to infuse gin.

Seeking to create a corporate gift that would be memorable for diesel engine technicians, we sought, with the help of a local artisan gin producer, to recreate a gin with the spark and bang of the combustion process. After experimenting with a whole selection of peppercorns, Sichuan pepper was chosen for the slow-burning heat, and lemon grass provided an additional citrusy spark. If you try to make your own infused gin, don’t dry fry the Sichuan pepper first.

sichuan pepper
Sichuan pepper – brilliant for infusing gin.

Buying Sichuan pepper – the quality is very important

A lot of commonly available Sichuan pepper in Europe is very poor quality stuff, and it will have lost its anaesthesic qualities which is its raison d’être. Steenbergs, Barts, and the Cool Chilli Co can all be relied on as suppliers of quality.

Storing Sichuan pepper husks

Store in an airtight container, in the dark for a couple of years, no more.

Growing Sichuan pepper – using the leaves of the plant

In any case, I am off to Mark Diacono’s Otter Farm next month, and I hope to pick up a Sichuan flower pepper plant there and then grow my own, particularly as you can also use the young leaves (a bit less strong) in salads and clear soups; and the tiny yellow flowers also make a beautiful garnish for grilled meat or fish.

I’ll be reporting back on my early spring (leaves), later spring (flowers) and August/September (husk) harvesting experiences later in the year.

Update: the nursery is an hour away from the site where the courses take place…so I will have to stick to buying my Sichuan pepper for the moment….

sichuan pepper

Further reading

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop

Music to listen to as you read

PJ Harvey’s An Acre of Land – beautiful! She ‘sowed it all over with one peppercorn’.

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