Everything You Need To Know About Szechuan Peppercorns
In recent years, Szechuan(or Sichuan) peppercorns, have found their way onto the menus of Michelin starred restaurants, into the pastry of adventurous bakers, and even into craft beers. Still, many people are surprised to learn that Szechuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns at all — they’re the dried berry husks of the prickly ash tree. These husks, which can be either rosy pink or green, can be used whole or ground into powder.
Indigenous to the Central Chinese Szechuan province, Szechuan peppercorns are central to the notoriously spicy culinary traditions of the region. With a citrusy, woodsy flavor, Szechuan peppercorns are known less for their mild heat and more for the unique numbing effect they produce on the lips and tongue. In his book On Food and Cooking, culinary scientist Harold McGee describes the effect as “a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue).”
Szechuan cuisine is characterized by signature flavor combinations. The most well-known of these is "ma la" or "ma la wei", a peppery, tingling numbness (“ma”) and a fiery heat (“la”), typically achieved by combining Szechuan peppercorns with hot chiles. Oil, garlic, scallions, and ginger are sometimes added to enhance the flavors. Mapo tofu, a popular Szechuan dish, is a classic example.
Concerns about the ingredient’s capacity to transmit a bacteria destructive to citrus trees led to an FDA import ban, which lasted from the late 1960’s until 2005. As their reputation as an extraordinary (and extraordinarily versatile) ingredient continues to rise, Szechuan peppercorns have become easier to find. They are also used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine.
So, what can you do with Szechuan peppercorns? Classic stir fries are an easy, versatile option. They can be incorporated into a wide variety of marinades, rubs, and sauces. They can also be used to create homemade spice blends, and used to season salads or frying batters. Szechuan peppercorns are increasingly being used in less traditional capacities too, showing up in cocktails and beer, as an aromatic infusion for salts, sugar and honey, and in baked goods.
However you use Szechuan peppercorns, toasting them in a hot pan or wok before cooking with them is recommended. Carolyn Phillips, author of All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China, notes that toasting “heightens and softens the flavor of Sichuan peppercorns…elevating the aromas of this spice while mellowing its bitterness.” Once toasted, the peppercorns should be used as soon as possible to avoid loss of flavor."