Sourcing Huajiao (Sichuan Pepper, Sichuan Peppercorn)
Published Jun 03, 2014, Updated Jun 30, 2023
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.
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
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.
The Sichuan peppercorns found in Asian markets in the U.S. 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.
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.