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 potent and citrusy “Qingxi Gong Jiao,” famously collected by the emperor as tribute.
When you’re using just-harvested huajiao from the tiny Sichuan village that is world capital of huajiao quality—with only one harvest a year—you certainly can’t waste a single gram. It’s crazy enough that The Mala Market has access to Qingxi’s “tribute pepper” when local supply is so low, and regional demand so high that your average spice sellers in Chengdu would be hard-pressed finding gongjiao to sell. So it deserves full respect!
What is huajiao?
Looks like a peppercorn, but actually a wild child seedpod of the citrus family that went on a bender and came back permanently buzzed: That’s huajiao for you. Yes, Sichuan’s native huajiao is a member of the Rutaceae citrus family in the Zanthoxylum botanical genus, which includes numerous edible species and varieties of both red (红花椒, hóng huājiāo) and green (青花椒, qīng huājiāo) Sichuan pepper.
However, its signature tingly quality is a product of the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecule. This unique botanical compound binds to tactile touch and vibration receptors (instead of taste receptors, like sweet or sour). Through these tactile receptors in your mouth and lips, 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.
Huajiao’s electric 麻 (má) “numbing” sensation is part of our (and Sichuan cuisine’s) namesake idiom 麻辣 (málà), Mandarin for “numbing and spicy.”
How to choose red Sichuan pepper varieties
We carry premium Da Hong Pao, special-grade Da Hong Pao, and a precious (read: limited) seasonal supply of Qingxi Gong Jiao tribute pepper, the most electrifying huajiao in the world. All of them are harvested and sorted—twice!—by hand, to insure very few pesky, gritty seeds remain. The husk is the only edible part of huajiao.
Taylor finds Gong Jiao “brighter, lighter and more floral” compared to Da Hong Pao’s “warm, woodsy citrus” with a hint of menthol. On a tingly scale, nothing beats tribute pepper, though Da Hong Pao is similarly potent.
It’s useful to have all kinds. Regular Da Hong Pao is universally suited for cooking, while we reserve special-grade Da Hong Pao—with its unique, multi-petaled flower shape and brilliant red color—for serving whole on garnished dishes that really impress. Finally, we keep fresh-ground tribute pepper on hand at all times for dishes that require big mala flavor and finesse.
Try the cold-oil blooming method in our Sichuan Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry (Shousi Baicai, 手撕白菜) to really experience the delicate flavors of huajiao in a dish!
How to toast and grind Sichuan pepper
Understanding how to grind Sichuan pepper is simple, but it’s easy to burn the huajiao in the process. The trick is pan-toasting the huajiao over low heat until you can snap-crackle-crunch one of the peppercorns between your fingers. It should sound with a satisfyingly brittle crunch and bust easily to smaller pieces. If you try squishing the pepper and it feels “soft” or simply squeezed flatter, it’s not done toasting. Remove the huajiao from heat as soon as it starts crisping up and let cool in a thin layer.
This takes several minutes of continuous stirring so as not to burn the huajiao. Slow, even toasting draws out internal moisture. The color should darken slightly, but not much. If it completely browns—or blackens anywhere—before the shell can easily crunch apart, your heat is too high. Some browned peppercorns in the process are fine, but if they’re black you may wish to discard. Turn to a lower setting immediately before proceeding further. You’ll notice the resulting aroma that gets wafted away in the process makes your whole kitchen smell delicious.
One 2-ounce bag produces several batches of what’s shown in the pan. You don’t need much but you do need it!
In my kitchen, there’s always a jar of hand-ground huajiao around. Using a mortar and pestle means I can fill smaller batches more often, unlike electric grinders that require filling to a certain capacity for an adequate grind. Plus, I enjoy the process of manually pounding the husks to a powder. When I cook at friends’ places, I’ve been known to carry the entire mortar and pestle over just to grind fresh huajiao for one meal.
(If you identify with this, you might appreciate the expedience of our pre-filled Sichuan Pepper Grinder for garnishes and small dishes. It is not pre-toasted, but for small amounts—think finishing pepper, not cooking pepper—it can be great to have on hand.)
Now that you know how to grind Sichuan pepper, you can cook with it! Below is an exhaustive list of all The Mala Market recipes that call for ground Sichuan pepper (current as of 6/22/22).
- Zuzu’s Savory Sichuan Zongzi (粽子)
- Sichuan Chili Oil Wontons (Hongyou Chaoshou, 红油抄手)
- Chengdu Zajiang Noodles (Zajiang Mian)
- Sour and Spicy Sweet-Potato Noodles (Suan La Fen)
- No Sweet Sour: Kunming Sour and Spicy Noodles (Suan La Mian, 酸辣面)
- No Sweet Sour: Crunchy Lotus Root Salad (Liang Ban Cui Ou, 凉拌脆藕)
- Spicy Daikon Carrot Salad (Liangban, 凉拌)
- Mala Beef Jerky (Mala Niu Rou Gan)
- Pressure Cooker Sichuan Rice-Steamed Pork Ribs (Fenzhengrou, 粉蒸肉)
- Cooking with Pixian Doubanjiang: Second Sister Rabbit Cubes (Erjie Tuding, 二姐兔丁)
- Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)
- Chengdu Challenge #2: Cold Chicken in Sichuan Pepper-Scallion Oil (Jiao Ma Ji)
- Chengdu Challenge #6: Hot and Spicy Beef (Xiang La Fei Niu Rou)
- Chengdu Challenge #10: Mapo Doufu
- Chengdu Challenge #15: Dumplings in Red Oil (Zhong Shui Jiao)
- Chengdu Challenge #17: Chongqing Chicken With Chilies (La Zi Ji)
- Chengdu Challenge #21: Dry Pot Chicken (Mala Xiang Guo)
- Chengdu Challenge #22: ‘Saliva’ (Mouthwatering) Chicken (Kou Shui Ji)
- Chengdu Challenge #24: Sichuan Crispy Duck
- Chengdu Challenge #28: Hot-and-Sour Eggplant Salad (Suan La Liang Ban Qie Zi)
- Vegan Mapo Tofu: Chengdu Inspired! (麻婆豆腐)
- Cooking With Pixian Doubanjiang: Sichuan Sauce for Stir-Fry
- Mala Dry Pot With Cauliflower, Snap Peas and Bacon (Gan Guo Caihua)
- Yu Xiang Zucchini (Yu Xiang Xia Nan Gua, 鱼香夏南瓜)
- Chongqing Lobster (Chongqing Long Xia)
- Sichuan Spareribs With Mala BBQ Sauce (Mala Pai Gu): Cooking With Grace Young
- Crispy Sichuan-Pepper Pulled Pork