What Are Sichuan Peppercorns? First of All, They’re Not Peppers

Versie Dortch

Sichuan cooking is one of the most complex, sophisticated, and flavorful cuisines in the world–that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. As one of China’s Eight Great Cuisines, the inimitable culinary culture of this southwestern Chinese province is so spectacular that in 2011 Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, was recognized as UNESCO’s second ever City of Gastronomy. Responsible for bringing dishes like hot-pot, dan dan noodles, and mapo tofu to the global stage, Sichuan food is known for balancing big spice with pungent aromatics, as well as mind-blowing, mouth-numbing goodness courtesy of one special ingredient: the electrifying Sichuan peppercorn.

What are Sichuan Peppercorns?

For starters, they’re not actually peppers. Unlike the red chiles that are also ubiquitous to Sichuan cooking, these petite “peppercorns” are actually the berries of the prickly ash tree, which is a member of the citrus family. Harvested only once a year in the late summer, these tiny bumpy fruits are painstakingly picked from their thorny branches by hand and laid out to dry naturally in the heat of the sun.

As they dry out, the berries open up into a distinctive floral shape that earned the spice it’s local nickname hua jiao, or “flower pepper.” After open dried husks release their small black seeds, which are bitter and inedible, the fragrant peppercorns are hand-processed to ensure no thorns, seeds, or twigs make it into the batch. It’s a labor-intensive process, but clearly a labor of love.

How do they taste?

There are two main kinds of Sichuan peppercorns: red peppercorns, which showcase an earthy depth, and green peppercorns, which are rarer and more floral. While both types taste great and boast beautiful citrus notes, the magic of these miniscule marvels lies as much in their function as in their flavor; instead of attacking the tongue with spiciness, Sichuan peppercorns induce a tingling sensation similar to drinking a super carbonated seltzer or eating a whole pack of pop rocks.

“I would say that it’s almost a mouthfeel or a dimensional feeling rather than a taste,” says Chengdu native Jing Gao, professional peppercorn enthusiast and founder of popular chili oil brand Fly by Jing. “It’s definitely got mystical qualities.” The piquant, numbing quality of Sichuan peppercorns comes from a chemical compound called hydroxy-alpha sanshool, which causes micro-vibrations across the tongue and lips that clock in at the same frequency of some power grids.

Aside from being scientifically fascinating, the special effect of these peppercorns is also a key component of Sichuan cuisine’s greatest gift to the culinary world, a numbing and spicy flavor profile known as málà. “When the chile pepper was introduced to China a couple hundred years ago, it was said that the numbing quality of the Sichuan pepper would allow you to eat more chiles,” Gao says. “It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship, and málà became super well-known from Sichuan as a result.”

How are they used?

Because of its multitude of uses beyond just food, Sichuan peppercorns have been highly revered across China for more than two millennia. In addition to being incorporated into topical medicines and tinctures for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, certain varieties, like the rare gongjiao tribute pepper, were once harvested exclusively as fertility gifts for ancient emperors and their concubines.

These tantalizing little wonders also have a litany of uses if the only thing you really want in your belly is a delicious meal. As a star ingredient in many chili oils and five-spice powders, Sichuan peppercorns are as versatile as they are unique. Whether you’re craving perfectly cooked fish in spicy broth, garlicky marinated green beans, or a kick-ass cold noodle salad that’ll come together in minutes, there’s always a way to sneak in some Sichuan peppercorns for an elevated taste experience.


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