“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
Travelling around China with my daughter, I naturally took a great pleasure in investigating the various local cuisines, it’s a huge country obviously, and there are many, many different regional dishes.
The food in Szechuan (also spelt Sichuan and Szechwan) was characterised by a very zingy sort of flavour… or more accurately, sensation. The food here is spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant.
The numbing effect and the taste of Sichuan pepper
One ingredient contributes to all those four characteristics and that is the local ‘pepper’, which has a 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”. Sichuan flower pepper also has a little of the heat of pepper, and, most famously of all, it produces 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'”
For more on the chemistry of 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 which are considered a bit ‘of rough’. Sancho is one of the seven spices in the Japanese spice mix, shichimi togarashi.
Normally just the husk (the pericarp) is used, which will have turned a lovely deep rose colour in the process of ripening and split open to release the black life it has hitherto held within it over the surrounding ground. So the seeds will have fallen out – you can see from the image above that they are empty. It’s no loss, as the flavour is in the husk, not the seed, which in any case is a bit gritty. However, if you are growing this ‘pepper’ for yourself, Mark Diacono recommends harvesting them slightly earlier when they still contain the seed because he advises that the pepper grinder deals with them better when they are still entire – 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).
Sichuan pepper is a flavour enhancer – it will make sugary food taste sweeter, and emphasise the 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 Sichuan flower pepper a little, as well as to enhance its enhancing ability, it’s a good thing to dry fry it.
Sichuan pepper is very good:
- added to salted, sugared walnuts
- 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
- particularly pockmarked Mother Chen’s beancurd
- 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, don’t dry fry the Sichuan pepper first.
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 a lot of its anaesthesic qualities which half the point of it. 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 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 use the young leaves (a bit less strong) in salads and clear soups; tiny yellow flowers 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.