Sourcing Huajiao (Sichuan Pepper, Sichuan Peppercorn)

Fresh Hanyuan Sichuan pepper

My Favorite Buzz: Sichuan Pepper

“My mouth is sleeping,” Fongchong said as she worked her way through a plate of mala-flavored cabbage stir-fry. “But she opens and lets me eat.”

And there you have it in a nutshell, the addictive power of Sichuan pepper.

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 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 Sichuanese call huajiao, or flower pepper, because of its flowery shape when dried—so abundantly and unabashedly.

My daughter Fongchong came to us straight from Guangzhou (Canton) at age 11, and we assumed that she would shun Sichuan pepper. However, I knew she liked spicy food, so after a couple of months I made that mala cabbage, stir-fried with dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppers. In this case, I used whole Sichuan peppercorns, as it was merely meant to flavor the oil. But I used too much and it was too numbing, even for me. But not for Fongchong. At some point in her Cantonese life she had acquired a taste for mala, and while Sichuan pepper’s definitely an acquired taste, it quickly turns to an addictive one.

However, it’s important to learn how to eat huajiao. You don’t put a whole Sichuan peppercorn in your mouth and bite down—unless you’re looking for some anesthesia. It will indeed numb your tongue and mouth, and while that is not totally unpleasant, it is weird. Like the hot sensation of chili pepper, the numbing of Sichuan pepper is detected not by the sensory nerves for taste but by those for touch. 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 ground into tiny chunks or powder.

a woman standing among her wholesale spices in a spice market in Chengdu
A vendor selling at least nine kinds of Sichuan pepper at Chengdu’s wholesale spice market

If you have had Sichuan food in America during the past few years made the Sichuan way (vs. the Canto 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 reason is fairly obvious, since almost all of America’s Chinese restaurants were historically run by immigrants from Canton and other southern China provinces. Their cuisines don’t even make use of chilies, much less Sichuan pepper. Those tastes were just too overwhelmingly bold for their liking, so when they made Sichuan dishes they cut down on the chilies and jettisoned the Sichuan pepper altogether, robbing the food of its kick and, therefore, its true identity.

Another reason “Szechwan” food in America was long missing its mala mojo was that 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. Two recent Chinese-food cult figures, Peter Chang and Danny Bowien, have ridden it to fame, and even your local Sichuan restaurant is probably going heavier on the ma nowadays.

Sourcing Sichuan Peppercorn

Three types of Sichuan pepper, fresh green, dried green and dried red
Three types of Sichuan pepper: fresh green (vacuum packed), dried green and dried red (see the flowers?)

Sichuan pepper is not truly a pepper but the seed pod of a shrubby tree in the citrus family. There are dozens if not hundreds of edible Sichuan pepper species and varieties grown in China as well as in Japan and some other Asian countries. It is sometimes called prickly ash, a species of which also grows in the U.S. As the little berries dry, they open and release their seeds, which are not eaten.

In Sichuan, you find huajiao in an array of colors, from green to brownish red to bright red, and you also see it freshly picked during some times of the year. The Chengdunese make liberal use of the fresh-on-the-vine green Sichuan pepper, or tengjiao, as an ingredient and garnish. Green Sichuan pepper is sometimes also called rattan pepper in English.

Most Sichuan pepper has a strong citrus fragrance and flavor ranging from lemon and orange to grapefruit and pomelo. Everyone seems to have a different opinion about whether the red or green is more strong and numbing. I feel the green is more intense, but it also just has a different flavor, more fresh and vegetal, while the red tends to be more warm and woodsy.

The most famous red huajiao has historically been grown in Hanyuan County, Sichuan, and in the summer of 2017, after a dozen trips to Sichuan in as many years,  I finally visited Hanyuan and the village of Qingxi, the historic center of Sichuan pepper production. I was there to do research for importing spices and also to write about the history of Sichuan pepper in the U.S. (for Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown). 

The tortured path of Sichuan pepper from farm to American table is a fascinating story, and I hope you’ll read about it in detail in one of those publications, but long story short, Sichuan pepper was banned in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 for fear it could spread citrus canker. The ban was lifted in 2005 with the caveat that all Sichuan pepper had to be heated to 140° for 10 minutes or more to kill any possible canker bacteria—a heating process thought to diminish the quality. What I discovered in my research was that sometime in the recent past the USDA had quietly lifted the requirement for heat treatment, stating that Sichuan pepper “poses negligible risk.” As I wrote in that article:

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”?

I also discovered, however, that none of the big processors and suppliers I talked to in Sichuan knew about the change and were still heat-treating all Sichuan pepper for the U.S. market. They didn’t believe the law had changed, but just this past January I finally convinced our supplier not to heat treat our latest shipment. 

Supermarket vs premium Mala Market Sichuan pepper
Chinese supermarket Sichuan pepper (bought in U.S.) vs. our Big Red Pao Sichuan pepper (recently imported from Chengdu)

The Sichuan peppercorns found in Asian markets in the U.S. [in 2014] are usually lowest quality and quite inexpensive, full of brittle black seeds and stray twigs. They are also fairly old, not having a big turnover, and have often lost whatever aroma, flavor and numbing quality they ever had. I would therefore recommend buying Sichuan pepper from a spice shop or dedicated seller. You truly do get what you pay for.

And of course I would recommend buying it from The Mala Market. We source two species of red Sichuan pepper and one of green Sichuan pepper. The Big Red Pao (dahongpao) species is grown in Gansu province, as much quality huajiao is nowadays. As the name, which literally translates as big red robe, so wonderfully implies, it is large, bright red and delivers a big, earthy, citrus pow. The Hanyuan red peppercorn is smaller and darker red and is more lemony tart. Green huajiao is generally grown in warmer climates. Ours comes from the famed growing area of Jinyang County, in southern Sichuan near the Yunnan border.

All three species are from the most recently harvested crop, and have the intense fragrance, flavor, and numbing sensation Sichuan pepper is meant to have. And as a premium product, they have been carefully hand-sorted to have few twigs and seeds.

Sichuan Pepper Sampler at The Mala Market
The Sichuan Pepper Sampler at The Mala Market: Hanyuan, Green and Big Red Pao varieties. From the most recent harvest, they are painstakingly hand-sorted to remove twigs and seeds and, unlike other Sichuan pepper in the U.S., have not been heat-treated.

Cooking With Sichuan’s Favorite Spice

There are no hard and fast rules about which Sichuan pepper to use in which dish. It’s really a matter of preference. Green huajiao is very often used in fish dishes such as fish hotpot or fish with pickled vegetables (suancaiyu) or fish in green pepper sauce  as well as with rabbit. Chongqing features the green in its famous noodle dishes. The more woodsy red huajiao goes better with heavier tastes like pork and dishes with chili bean paste (doubanjiang). 

Sichuan peppercorns should be heated before eaten or ground. Use whole peppercorns as called for in recipes, usually to flavor the cooking oil. In some recipes it’s chopped up roughly with other ingredients as an ingredient or garnish. But mostly, you’ll use it ground into a powder. First, you lightly toast the peppercorns in a dry skillet until very fragrant. Then cool and grind in a spice or coffee grinder. I usually sift the powder, since some bits of the husk don’t break down well. Like any ground spice, it will lose its punch after a few months, so don’t store too long. Store extra Sichuan peppercorns in the freezer.

Toasting red Sichuan pepper in pan
Heat Sichuan peppercorns in a dry skillet until fragrant and lightly toasted
Grinding Sichuan pepper to medium-coarse powder
After they’ve cooled, grind to a medium-coarse powder in a spice or coffee grinder
Sifting Sichuan pepper powder to remove husks
Sift the powder, leaving the bigger husk bits behind
Sichuan pepper powder in glass jar
Make in small batches and use within a few months

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. Hi Taylor, after having real Sichuan peppercorns in Chongching and then with what I expect were smuggled ones here in the states, I was so disappointed in what became available that I quit using them. Yours were a breath of fresish air, but still were left in the dust by what I first got. I couldn’t keep them in the kitchen in a sealed container because of the intensity of the aroma. Yours are still the best available in the USA . I have three trees growing that came from from Bay Flora which had their first decent crop this year, but while they are reported to be Simulans, and have a truly lovely flavor and complexity, fresh, they are still less strong than even yours. I have 4 others from seed that may bear soon, but still am wishing that I could get viable seeds from the real bungeanum desperate to grow the real and really potent thing.

    1. Hi Dana, I’m fascinated by people growing Sichuan pepper in the U.S. I know a few are doing so on a small scale, and I’d love to taste some homegrown ones. I’m also curious about what kind of Sichuan pepper that was you had from China. I brought about 12 different kinds home from Sichuan this summer, including some I got in Qingxi, in Hanyuan County, where the best is said to come from. They are all pretty potent, and make my office smell wonderful, but none are too strong smelling to keep around. There are at least 18 different kinds of Sichuan pepper growing in Sichuan (we saw at least two different kinds in Hanyuan itself), and many more than that in the whole of China. I’ve heard from my customers that they’ve had to reduce the amount of Sichuan pepper in their recipes when using ours, so it’s definitely potent. I was able to source even a higher grade for the 2017 harvest, but every harvest is different too. So many variables!

      1. I wish I knew what those peppercorns were, but that information didn’t come with them. They did seem to fit Fuschia Dunlop’s criteria of being able to smell them through the back of your hand. My tiny crop this year is twice as strong as last year’s, but still half as strong as yours from last year. Their saving grace is their complexity which is truly lovely. Growing them is fun. The ones I’ve grown from seed feel like my children. ( very thorny children!). enough talk, I need to order some of your 2017 batch!

        1. Hi Dana,
          How many years was it from seed to a small harvest? I’m getting a lot of requests to find a U.S. source for the seedlings.

          Thanks much for ordering ours again. I’m hoping our 2017 harvest is even stronger!

          1. They begin to bear the year after branches form. The flowers form on the previous year’s wood. They can grow quite fast though. One seed I planted in a mix of compost and dirt had grown to 8 feet tall since it sprouted in January. It branched after I pruned it so I’d be able to reach the highest branches. It may bear on the new branches next year. The seedlings I got from BayFlora came with a few sprays of fruit, but I put growing tubes around them to get them to grow more quickly. The next year I got one meal’s worth because a late frost killed the first sprouting of leaves and flower buds. This year was much better, but I learned you have to prune them or they can grow quite out of reach without a ladder. My over all answer from my own experience is about three years from seed. The seeds are difficult to germinate due to their oily seed coat. I followed some directions rubbing them in sand to scarify them , but still only about fifteen percent sprouted. One sprouted in a week, the other three took three months to sprout.

          2. Dana,
            Thanks so much for this info! I think this could be very helpful to the people around the country (world) who are trying to grow their own Sichuan pepper. I admire your effort and persistence. Sounds like it will pay off handsomely at some point.

            I hope you’re using the fresh peppercorns in dishes as well as the dried. And this summer I had the leaves fried in tempura batter and they were delicious. Strong Sichuan pepper flavor but without the numbing effect.

  2. Hi- what grinder would you recommend for grinding the peppercorns? I’ve tried 2 different ones and either they are bad grinders or they are not strong enough for the sichuan peppercorns. Help! I can’t afford to buy my way through Amazon to find out.

    1. Hi Judy,

      I’m surprised to hear that. I use an old, basic coffee grinder, nothing fancy at all, and it does the job. It is not this brand, but it is very similar to this one:

      Sichuan peppercorns do not break down entirely, at least not in that grinder, but you can grind until there are just a few yellow husk bits remaining and sift those out. I hope you’ll find the right one!

    1. I think one can occasionally find the American cousin of Sichuan pepper fresh here in U.S., but I’ve never seen the fresh version from China. It spoils quickly, so would have to be vacuum packaged, as it sometimes is in Sichuan. We may someday see the packaged ones, but they’re not really the same as the truly fresh. Thanks for asking!

  3. This product was exactly on point. It delivered that numbing quality that Sichuan peppercorn is known for. I will order this product over and over again. Amazing!

  4. Hi Taylor, my 7 Sichuan pepper trees ( 4 adolescents in need of pruning and three toddlers in their third year). Are all loaded with peppercorns this year but haven’t turned to their red color yet. Are the unripe peppercorns like these, the sort used in dishes like braised fish. They do look like the ones I’ve seen in videos still in bunches on their stems. I wish I knew what the seed separating machine looks like. I could use one this year.
    Best Wishes,
    Dana Johnson

    1. Hi Dana,

      That’s so exciting! I continue to be jealous. The way I understand it, most fresh Sichuan peppercorns used in cooking are a type called teng jiao, or vine/rattan pepper, and they are fully ripe in their green form. Sichuan might also use fresh ripe green Sichuan pepper, another species. But I don’t believe they use the unripe, still-green red peppercorns. Having said that, if your unripe ones are already releasing a lot of oil, why not try it fresh?

      As for the seed separators, the ones I saw in the factories are quite large contraptions where the peppercorns move through several layers of shaking and filtering. Not sure how you would replicate that at home, but good luck with your harvest.

      Thanks for the update!

  5. I am growing Sichuan Pepper in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few hours north of Seattle (Zone 8). The trees thrive with very little effort on my part. This is the third growing season since I planted them from seedlings purchased at a local specialty greenhouse, and the first year that they have borne fruit. I can’t wait until harvest time! I wouldn’t mind using some of the green peppercorns now but I have not come across any recipes.

    1. So jealous of your trees! Keep in mind that the green Sichuan peppercorns used in Sichuan are a green species, not an unripe red. But if your unripe ones are producing enough oil when you squeeze them, then why not try them? I just posted a recipe for suan la fen that is a great showcase for green Sichuan pepper.