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 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.”

closeup of dahongpao huajiao in the pan
Step 1: dry-toast. Alternate method if you really want to impress someone for dinner: Serve these six-petaled Da Hong Pao whole by flash-frying them in the cooking oil, removing from pan, and garnishing the finished dish.

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!

a wooden spatula holding a scoop of ground huajiao powder
Coffee/espresso bean grinders make the perfect small-batch huajiao grinder. However, I wouldn’t recommend grinding huajiao in the same grinder you use for coffee, or your huajiao might smell like coffee and your coffee might be incredibly numbing. We only grind huajiao in this grinder!
a plastic funnel being used to transfer ground huajiao powder into a repurposed glass spice jar
Store your freshly ground Sichuan pepper in a clean, resealable container. We reuse glass spice jars because they already have the perfect pour tops. A transfer funnel helps ensure nothing goes to waste.

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).

Beloved classics

Mouthwatering freestyles

About Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

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    1. Hi Fred, thanks for reading. I wouldn’t recommend toasting them in an oven, because you really need to stir continuously to toast evenly, and be able to check if they’re burning or not. It’s not a long process at all!

  1. I ws under the impression that after pounding in the mortar and pestle you want tot sift them through a fine mesh strainer to seperate the husks from the powder. We tend to always make it fresh – even the next day the flavor seems to greatly diminish from how dynamic it is immediately after preparation

    1. Hi, Alex, thanks for reading. I agree, fresh is definitely the most potent and fragrant way to use your huajiao! It doesn’t matter if you sift or not. It’s all the same stuff. If you don’t like the coarser grind I would just continue processing until the powder is uniform.

    1. Hi Dave,
      A high quality Sichuan pepper (like ours!) will have little to no seeds. But, yes, if you have huajiao with seeds, you’ll need to pick them out as they are gritty and unpleasant to eat.

    2. Hi Dave, if you do have black seeds I would recommend sorting those out so you don’t end up with it in your dish. I find very few to none in The Mala Market’s huajiao!