Sichuan peppercorn (hu jiao) is used extensively in Sichuan cuisine and is responsible for the characteristic tingling sensation that comes with eating spicy dishes from the region. When combined with hot Chinese chilies, they produce a taste known as mala, or “numbing-spicy.” Dishes from Sichuan Province in southwestern China are known for their distinctive flavor profile.
Below we’ll discuss the more subtle ways in which this ingredient is used by Chinese chefs.
There is also a green variety of Sichuan peppercorns, though the red ones are more common.
What Exactly Are Sichuan Peppercorns? What Do They Taste Like, Exactly?
Prickly ash trees produce the reddish-pink berries known as red Sichuan peppercorns, which contain tiny, dark seeds with a zesty, citrus-like flavor. None of us would want to eat these seeds because they are rough, bitter, and unpleasant (imagine trying to chew on sand). Before they can be used, however, the outer husk must be removed from the berry.
Although green Sichuan peppercorns exist, their red counterparts are far more widely used.
They share not even a single resemblance to the peppercorns you grind fresh with on your kitchen table, despite sharing a common name. More of them will give you a warm, slightly lemony, and floral taste, and they’ll pleasantly numb your tongue and lips.
The combination of fiery chilies and this buzz of numbness is a winning one in Sichuan. Its fame extends beyond the borders of Sichuan Province, both within China and beyond. The popularity of Sichuan food in the United States has skyrocketed in the last decade.
Where Do You Put Them To Use?
The numbing quality of the peppercorns can alleviate the heat of spicy Sichuan cuisine, allowing for a fuller appreciation of the dish’s nuanced flavors. Many Chinese recipes call for Sichuan peppercorns to temper the heat of chili peppers.
The peppercorns’ tingling sensation and floral aroma are two more ways they elevate simple ingredients to new heights of flavor complexity.
Roast meats, braises, and even cured meats benefit from their use as a seasoning all over China. Bear in mind that the numbing effect is not felt in small doses. Instead, they improve the flavor of marinades, braising liquids, and our homemade chili oil.
A large amount of Sichuan peppercorn infused oil, a lot of whole peppercorns, or a lot of powdered Sichuan peppercorns will produce the most numbing effect.
Whole red Sichuan peppercorns are great in vegetable and chili-based stir-fries but beware of the intense sensation of biting into the husk. Some chefs like to use them to flavor oil at the start of the cooking process, while others prefer to grind them into a powder to use as a seasoning or garnish.
While you can purchase ground red Sichuan peppercorns, we recommend grinding your own in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder for the best flavor. Peppercorns should be toasted briefly before being used in any preparation.
Sichuan peppercorns are one of the five main ingredients in Chinese Five Spice Powder.
Finally, this spice is believed to ease arthritis pain and promote blood circulation, according to traditional Chinese medicine.
Purchasing And Storing
For roughly 40 years, the importation of Sichuan peppercorns into the United States was banned due to fears that the citrus tree canker that originated in Sichuan could spread to American citrus crops and cause damage. Sichuan peppercorns are still hard to come by in the United States, although the ban was partially lifted in 2004.
Sichuan peppercorns aren’t something you’ll find in your average grocery store, but you can get them in many different forms (ground or whole) at Asian markets and online at specialty herb and spice stores.
Alternatives For Sichuan Peppercorns
Finding a suitable substitute for this spice is difficult if you don’t live near a Chinese supermarket. Sichuan peppercorns have a unique and pleasant tingly numbness that is hard to find in other spices.
If you have trouble finding the red kind, the green ones should be. They taste a little different, but their numbing effect is usually much more potent.
They can also be purchased in ground form or oil infusion (read more about Sichuan peppercorn oil). But finding them on the internet is where we advise you to start looking first.