Sichuan pepper also known as Szechuan pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, or Sichuan peppercorn is an important and popular spice used in China, especially in Sichuan cuisine. And recently some readers from USA told me that it is called Chinese prickly ash as well in the US. High quality of Sichuan pepper is named as one of the two hearts of thousands of Sichuan style dishes. And it is one of the most essential ingredient for Chinese five spice powder.
An overall introduction about Sichuan pepper (Szechuan pepper)
What are the main types of Sichuan pepper?
I have done some little research and find that the most popular Sichuan pepper spice is 大红袍, red Sichuan peppercorn outside China. In fact, there are two main popular types in China: red Sichuan pepper and green Sichuan pepper(usually referred as Ma Jiao instead of Hua Jia in China). The most famous red Sichuan pepper is 大红袍 (Da Hong Pao) and the most famous green Sichuan pepper is 九叶青.
Why it is named as Sichuan pepper?
The name Sichuan pepper many cause some misunderstanding about where it has been planted. Is it Only in Sichuan province? In fact, many of the Northern provinces in China including Shanxi, Qinghai and Shandong also planted Sichuan pepper. In Chinese Traditional Medicine, Huajiao is usually referred to those grown in the highland in Northern provinces. However Huajiao in Sichuan peppercorn or known as Chuan Jiao in Chinese is believed to be the most popular ones in kitchen.
How Chinese people use Sichuan pepper?
Huajiao is believed to be one useful spice in Chinese Traditional Medicine for the purpose of dispelling cold and removing humidity in Human body. The medicinal benefits of Sichuan pepper initially caused its kitchen popularity. Usually there is high humidity in mountainous region of Sichuan province. And Sichuan peppercorn (used to be wide peppercorn grown in the mountainous) is almost everywhere; people begin to use it in daily cooking.
Sichuan peppercorn can be mixed with salt—Szechuan pepper salt, which has been used as a popular seasoning throughout the country. You can check more about this flavor here salt and pepper shrimp.
Sichuan peppercorn oil with strong flavor of Sichuan pepper: it is not spicy at all, but extremely popular in Sichuan cuisine used in many cold dishes or salad. We call this as Ma oil. Usually, fresh green pepper or red pepper is simmered with oil over really slow fire for around 1 hour so the oil absorbs the fragrance of the peppercorns.
Sichuan peppercorn is used in many other mixed spices or seasonings include Chinese five spice powder and my favorite Sichuan style hot pot seasonings.
I get several large bags of really high quality Sichuan peppercorn back to my current living place for the purpose of the restaurant style Sichuan hot pot, expected by lots of readers of a long time. I am sorry for the delay, but finding the right ingredients really consumes time!
The secret weapon of Sichuan style hot pot seasoning is fresh green peppercorn (藤椒) used during the simmering process. It will give the soup base a unique and intense numbing sensation around the mouth (Ma feeling). We usually use both fresh ones along with dried ones, as the dried Sichuan peppercorn will be responsive for the long lasting numbing feeling.
Sichuan pepper Buying and Sourcing Tips
It is really hard to distinguish high quality over low quality if you never tried freshly pickled high quality Sichuan pepper. However there are still some tips I would love to share. The principle is freshly pickled ones are best as the fragrance will fade away along with time.
Observe the color:
Newly harvest Sichuan peppercorns have brighter colors. For red Sichuan peppercorn, it is bright brownish red but not brown. For dried green Sichuan pepper, you should at lest see green in the color instead of a lifeless dark color.
High quality Sichuan peppercorn usually has whole seeds instead of broken pieces.
Smell it: You can slightly smell the strong aroma from high quality Sichuan pepper even outside of air tighter bags(expect vacuum package). When getting close, the taste should be very strong.
Taste it: When used in dishes, you can easily taste the Ma feeling out even with just several whole seeds.
Dishes featured Sichuan Peppercorn
By the way, if you get any questions or suggestion, please drop me a comment.