If there is one taste most closely associated with Sichuan cuisine, it is Sichuan pepper, the numbing spice. The bride of the chili pepper in many Sichuan dishes, it is the má—numbing—to chili pepper’s là—spicy hot—in the word 麻辣 (málà), which is practically synonymous with Sichuan food. While many cuisines make use of the chili pepper, no other cuisine features Sichuan peppercorn—which the Sichuan call 花椒 (huājiāo), or flower pepper, because of its flowery shape when dried—so abundantly and unabashedly. Both red and green huajiao are used in their fresh, dried and infused-oil forms in Sichuan.

Huajiao is a member of the Rutaceae citrus family in the Zanthoxylum botanical genus, which includes numerous edible species and both red and green varieties. It is not actually a pepper, but rather the husk of the prickly ash plant’s seed. The husk is prized for its unique numbing sensation, a product of the hydroxy-α-sanshool molecule. This unique botanical compound binds to tactile touch and vibration receptors (instead of taste receptors, like sweet or sour) in your mouth and lips. Through these receptors, sanshool targets the chemical touch pathway and activates paresthesia-inducing somatosensory neurons. In other words, it makes your brain think your mouth is physically vibrating, thus going numb.

Very recent research shows that those Sichuan pepper vibrations are actually about 50 hertz strong, which explains the tingling. So if you see a whole Sichuan peppercorn in a dish, avoid chomping on it. It’s there for flavor only, and a slight buzz. The more appealing way to eat it is infused in oil or ground into powder.

If you have had Sichuan food in America during the past few years made the Sichuan way (vs. the Cantonese way), you probably encountered huajiao. But this wasn’t always the case in the U.S., where Sichuan pepper was suspiciously absent from “Szechwan” food for most of its history here. The USDA banned the Sichuan peppercorn from importation for 37 years. Now that the ban has been lifted, Sichuan pepper has come in with a roar befitting its roar of a taste. 

About Red Huajiao

Dahongpao “Big Red Robe”

While most varieties of Sichuan pepper and its other Asian cousins have small seed pods that don’t fully open and often retain their seeds, the Sichuan pepper grown and/or preferred in Sichuan fully opens into heart-shaped sections for the appearance of a six-petaled flower.

Not only are these “flowering” huajiao pods more likely to dislodge their gritty black seeds, they are significantly larger, more fragrant and more potent. The Dahongpao “Big Red Robe” variety, is, as the name suggests, particularly red and large.

closeup of dahongpao huajiao in the pan

How We Source Premium Sichuan Pepper

Read about sourcing premium Sichuan pepper and about the tortured path of Sichuan’s defining spice from Chinese farm to America table over the past 50 years in an article we wrote for the award-winning Roads & Kingdoms and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.

“Sichuan pepper was banned outright for 37 years, then forced to endure unnecessary heat treatment for a dozen more—making it difficult for kung pao chicken, mapo doufu, and other Sichuan classics to wield their full numbing power for nearly 50 years in the U.S. And this whole time, there was ‘negligible risk’?”

Single-Origin Special Grade Dahongpao “Flower Pepper” Huajiao

Our special-grade dahongpao is grown in Wudu, Gansu Province. It is hand-sorted to include a high percentage of six- and four-petal flowers, which is why we label it Flower Pepper, the literal translation of huajiao. When the visual is not as important—for instance, as with ground huajiao—we also offer a top grade dahongpao, loose or in a grinder for your ultimate convenience.

Our Flower Pepper has almost no seeds, twigs or thorns—a feat of machine-sorting once and then hand-sorting twice, as only the top grades are. Like all our varieties, it has not undergone the once-required heat-treatment process that for so long robbed huajiao of its punch in the U.S. 

Non-GMO, Non-Heat Treated, Non-Irradiated

dahongpao sichuan pepper

Recipes Using Red Huajiao

Hanyuan Qingxi Gongjiao “Tribute Pepper”

The most famous of Sichuan pepper is grown in Sichuan itself, in the county of Hanyuan. And the mountain village of Qingxi is renowned for the best of the best Hanyuan pepper. It is called Gongjiao, “Tribute Pepper,” because while Sichuan pepper is grown in many areas of China, the emperors favored and demanded this one as tribute.

Tastewise, gongjiao is brighter, lighter and more floral compared to dahongpao’s warm, woodsy citrus. The peppercorns are slightly smaller and darker red than dahongpao, meaning they retain a small percentage of seeds, but they make up for that with their beguiling taste and fragrance and strong numbing power, making Qingxi Gongjiao the most storied Sichuan pepper in the land. 

Single-Origin Hanyuan Qingxi Gongjiao “Tribute Pepper” Huajiao

There is still much more demand than supply of Qingxi gongjiao—you have to have connections to get it even in China—so we are privileged to be able to source and offer it here. Our buyer personally makes the trip from Chengdu to Qingxi each harvest to choose and secure our lot. 

These peppercorns are hand-picked and dried by the farmers in Qingxi before being machine-sorted once and hand-sorted twice. This insures mostly opened seed pods and no seeds, which appear in abundance in lower-quality Sichuan pepper. We at The Mala Market hand-package them weekly.

Non-GMO, Non-Heat Treated, Non-Irradiated

Tribute Sichuan pepper

About Green Huajiao

Green Sichuan pepper is not simply unripe red huajiao, as many believe, but a different species altogether. It has a distinctly different taste than the red species and has become very popular in Sichuan over the past couple decades, as its fresh, lemony taste is a great match for fish, chicken and vegetables. It is also used frequently in hotpot and noodle dishes. 

Premium green Sichuan pepper should have a strong citrusy, floral fragrance and taste as well as an intense numbing quality. In Sichuan, big stems of fresh green huajiao seem to adorn every dish during the summer harvest season. But since they don’t remain fresh very long—and the only good preservation technique is freezing—the dried version is used more commonly.

Single-Origin Dried Green Huajiao

Some of the best green huajiao is from southern Sichuan along the border with Yunnan Province. Ours is grown in Jinyang county in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of southern Sichuan. 

Though green peppercorns tend to retain more seeds than red, these are hand-sorted to include mostly opened seed pods and few stems and seeds, which appear in abundance in lower-quality Sichuan pepper. These peppercorns went direct from farmers to our supplier for processing and safety testing.

Non-GMO, Non-Heat Treated, Non-Irradiated

Green Sichuan pepper

Classic Chinese Green Huajiao Dishes

How to Grind Sichuan Pepper (Huajiao, 花椒)

No Mala Without Huajiao Many recipes on this blog include ground 花椒 (huājiāo), Sichuan pepper, but the steps are so simple we’ve always included how to grind Sichuan pepper as a recipe note. Yet it’s worth taking extra care to get the most of our premium, single-origin Sichuan pepper offerings—from the gorgeous six-petaled, flower-shape “Da Hong Pao” to Hanyuan’s supremely…

About Sichuan Pepper Oil (Rattan Pepper Oil)

Unlike Sichuan chili oil, which is made from dried chilies and is best when homemade, Sichuan pepper oil is best when made with just-picked Sichuan pepper. The best fragrant and numbing Sichuan pepper oil is made from fresh tengjiao, a species of green Sichuan pepper translated in English as vine pepper or rattan pepper. Tengjiao has the highest oil content of the Sichuan peppers and is used only in fresh form.

A potent infusion of bright, citrusy, numbing tengjiao, the oil is ideal for a seamless dose of intense huajiao flavor without the powder and husk. Or when you just want to save time grinding. A little goes a long way. Like the highest quality extra-virgin olive oil, Sichuan pepper oils are finishing oils, not stir-fry cooking oils.

Fresh tengjiao is infused with cold-pressed roasted rapesed oil within hours of being picked. Image source: Yaomazi

Yaomazi Sichuan Pepper Oil

Sichuan’s Yaomazi, China’s first, largest and most trusted maker of Sichuan pepper oil, grows its own rattan pepper, harvests it at peak ripeness, puts it in cold storage just long enough to test and clean it, then extracts the oil only a few hours after it was still on the vine to ensure peak freshness and a robust, non-musty fragrance and taste. The pepper oil is then mixed with first-grade, cold-pressed, low-erucic-acid rapeseed oil (a non-GMO canola), which grows in abundance in Sichuan and is prized for its superior taste to canola.

This tengjiaoyou shines in cold and hot dishes and elevates everything it touches.

Non-GMO, Vegan, China-certified Green Food

Sichuan pepper oil

Recipes with Sichuan Pepper Oil

Cooking and Storage Tips

Store dried Sichuan pepper in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Proper storage helps preserve flavor and shelf life. Whole Sichuan pepper remains potent for at least a couple years, depending on the variety (red longer than green), and freezing will prolong that even more.

Store Sichuan pepper oil in a cool, dry place or refrigerate to prolong life. Use Sichuan pepper oil as a finishing oil in cold dishes and salads, to dress “water-boiled” hot dishes and sauces, and anytime you want a smooth hit of intense flavor without the texture of ground huajiao.

Grinding huajiao: Toast whole huajiao in a dry skillet until pods start to smell very fragrant, but do not brown them. Let peppercorns cool, then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar + pestle to your desired coarseness. Once ground, Sichuan pepper powder retains its potent flavor and numbing punch for only a few weeks, so it’s ideal to grind as needed or store a small portion at a time in the refrigerator.

  • Topping: Top noodles, stir-fries, salads, soups and sauces with ground huajiao or tengjiaoyou, as you would black pepper or other seasonings.
  • Stir-frying: Infuse cooking oil with dried huajiao to incorporate its flavor and aroma into stir-fries. Heat the oil in a pan and add whole huajiao. Let sizzle gently just until the fragrance blooms, taking care not to let them burn, then add the rest of the ingredients or strain the whole huajiao from the oil first (for a peppercorn-free dish).
  • Blanching and braising: Add several whole huajiao as a deodorizing aromatic when blanching and braising meats.
  • Dry rubs and marinades: Add ground huajiao to your usual spice mix before grilling and roasting.

Sichuan Pepper Rules

If nothing else, remember these three rules for enjoying huajiao:

  1. Eat only the husk of the Sichuan pepper, not the hard black seed. If you have low-quality huajiao with lots of seeds you’ll need to pick them out before cooking or grinding.
  2. Whole peppercorns are in a dish just for the flavor and should not be eaten unless you want a real numbing jolt!
  3. Never buy pre-ground Sichuan pepper or you’ll be missing out on most of the flavor and numbing power.

Want to Try Them All? Get the Sichuan Pepper Sampler

Sichuan pepper sampler

Included in the Sichuan Pepper Sampler are 1 ounce (about 1/2 cup) each of red dahongpao, green huajiao and the rare red Tribute Pepper.

Qingxi gongjiao “Tribute Pepper”: the most intense of the three, with fresh citrus and floral notes.

Dahongpao “Big Red Robe”: large, bright-red and virtually seed-free, with a warm and woodsy flavor.

Green Sichuan pepper: bright and lemony, wildly popular in Sichuan and Chongqing. A good match for fish, chicken and vegetable dishes and almost always found in hotpot.

Though the three varieties of huajiao have distinctly different tastes, they are generally interchangeable. There are no hard and fast rules about which Sichuan pepper goes in which dish—that is entirely up to you!

All How to Cook With Huajiao (Sichuan Pepper)