Sichuan peppercorns are berries from the ash tree used in Chinese Sichuan cuisine, known for their spiciness and tongue-numbing quality. They are also called "Szechuan peppercorns." Learn more about them.
Spices are esteemed in the world of cooking for their savory flavor. Since ancient times, they have been used to add flavor and aroma to many dishes. Although spices are famed for their use in South Asian cuisine, they are equally important for adding flavorful Chinese food.
Sichuan cuisine is one of the many traditional Chinese cuisines. In particular, dried chilies are used exclusively for Chinese traditional cuisine and many Sichuan dishes in the Sichuan province.
For traditional Sichuan cuisine of China, five spices are used, among which the Sichuan peppercorns are one of the extraordinary key ingredients.
What are Sichuan Peppercorns?
Sichuan peppercorn is not a pepper, unlike its name suggests. These are extracted berries from the prickly ash tree that is commonly found in the Western regions of China.
Their lavender-like aroma can be easily mistaken for flowers, but these peppercorns are dried outer parts of the red berries adorned by the Zanthoxylum ash tree.
In ancient times, the these peppercorns were used for purposes other than cooking, such as relieving tooth pain with their numbing effect. They are favored by many, despite their numbing and tingling sensation.
How to Use Sichuan Peppercorns
You can stir-fry them or braise them. Stir-frying is the simplest. Pour some cooking oil into a wok or a frying pan and let it heat over the stove to make spicy Sichuan oil. Add some chili peppers to enhance the heat and flavor.
Toss the Sichuan peppercorns while you’re cooking them. The stir-frying technique is a Chinese innovation and is very common for roasting Sichuan peppercorns.
Braising is another technique used especially when cooking meat. In braising, add Sichuan peppercorns to the meat in a frying pan.
Use the braising cooking method when you want to combine the Sichuan peppercorns with another ingredient and cook them together.
Other than these cooking methods, you can add these dried berries in spice powdered form, by grinding and sprinkling Sichuan pepper (aka Szechuan pepper) on food or for seasoning during cooking.
They are a major component of Chinese 5 Spice, a popular seasoning blend.
Where Can I Buy Sichuan Peppercorns?
Surprisingly, the Sichuan Peppercorns had been banned in the United States for many years as a threat to citrus crops. The ban has now been removed, as long as the peppercorns are heat treated, which slightly reduces their effects.
If you can’t find them where you live, try looking them up online or in the supermarket by flower pepper, Indonesian lemon pepper, or prickly dried ash.
While these are all alternative English names, you can even find the Sichuan peppercorns by their Chinese name, Huā Jiāo.
You can purchase the Sichuan peppercorns as dried berries ready to be ground, or in the fine powdered form. Since the powdered form is manufactured, it is more readily available as compared to fresh Sichuan peppercorns.
The raw ones will only be easy to find in their native cultivation areas, which are mostly China and Taiwan.
Look for them in Asian grocery stores or online. I have purchased Szechuan peppercorns easily through Amazon. Here is a link.
- Buy Sichuan Peppercorns here (affiliate link, my friends).
Are Sichuan Peppercorns Spicy?
Sichuan peppercorns offer a slightly bitter taste and produce a tingling spicy sensation on the tongue and lips. They are not as spicy as other peppercorns and leave a juicy, citrusy aftertaste.
On the other hand, when you bite a Sichuan peppercorn, you’re bound to find it bitter at first. You will also feel a sour taste due to the juicy lime, accompanied by the numbing that takes a while to settle.
If you want something spicier than Sichuan peppercorns, black peppercorns are your best bet as they can make any dish taste like it’s on fire, as does black pepper.
Should I Grind Sichuan Peppercorns?
To use the Sichuan peppercorns in a dish, they should be roasted and ground. They can be used as a whole too, but grinding makes it more favorable and easier in cooking.
Before grinding, all unnecessary elements have to be removed, including any infected Sichuan peppercorns with black seeds or untidy twigs attached.
The seeds inside are the innermost constituent of the Sichuan peppercorns and need to be discarded too, as they are void of flavor.
If you’re not immediately grinding these peppercorns, store them in an airtight jar. Grinding the Szechuan peppercorn berries gives a slight advantage in contrast to the ready-made powdered form. The flavor is fresh and delightful and produces a more powerful numbing sensation.
It needs to be said that if you're new to using Sichuan peppercorns—go easy at first! They can be an acquired taste as nothing else really is quite like them. They can completely overwhelm a dish if you use too much (or even the amount the recipe calls for, if the peppercorns you have on hand are exceptionally fresh or you're not used to them.) The first time I used them, I made a dish of Mapo Tofu where I made that mistake of going overboard with them and all I could taste was the peppercorns.
And definitely take the time to pick out the little black seeds if they're present (I get mine from an online shop that takes the time to sort them by hand, removing all the seeds. More expensive but worth it to me.) They're gritty and sandy if you happen to chew down on one. They won't harm you but they're unpleasant.
Michael Hultquist - Chili Pepper Madness says
Yes, absolutely. I have several recipes here using Sichuan peppercorns and always comment on this. I ALSO have gone a bit overboard and WHOA! They most definitely can overwhelm a dish. Thanks for your input. Greatly appreciated.