Sourcing Huajiao (Sichuan Pepper, Sichuan Peppercorn)
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 it 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.
I had a wonderful meal at a Chinese restaurant in Liverpool (UK), with the most aromatic and refreshing taste of Sichuanese peppercorns. So aromatic and almost citrussy that for a moment I wondered what the spice was. It was fantastic! So I asked if I could buy some. Instead, they kindly gifted me a small pot with a paste that clearly contained peppercorns, but also chillies and some kind of fat. Have you come across this? What is it?
Hi Ana, I’m not sure what that delicious-sounding paste is. Jiao ma paste is made by crushing Sichuan peppercorns with scallions and oil. This sounds like a similar paste made with chilies, perhaps their own recipe for a mala paste. Have you cooked with it? Perhaps they used green Sichuan pepper, which has an even more citrusy/piney taste than red. Yum!
Yes, quite possibly. I’ll definitely look out for the green peppercorns – thanks for the tip.
prickly oil is also very good to give more “má” to your dish
From my experience, store bought peppercorns are always disappointing, not very fragrant and numbing
If you want to grow them, these are the species to look for:
Sichuan pepper: Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim.
Japanese green pepper: Zanthoxylum piperitum DC.
So true! While I don’t love store-bought chili oil, Sichuan-produced “prickly oil” (Sichuan pepper oil) is the bomb. I use that same brand all the time.
I also agree with you about store-bought Sichuan pepper. The exported product is often old by the time we buy it and (in the U.S.) always irradiated, which changes the flavor. You told me by email that your own Sichuan pepper tree is growing quite well in Belgium. Who would have thought? I’m going to try to grow one in Nashville now that I know that. Please link to a picture of your tree here so others can see it and be jealous. Thanks!
Where can you order fresh green on the vine peppercorns? I have not been able to find jt
They are abundant in Sichuan (where I bought the ones pictured), but I have never seen them in the U.S., even in large Chinese supermarkets. I doubt anyone is importing them (yet). 🙁
Farmer Kong Thao is growing them in California and has had them at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market for the past few weeks. They are AMAZING!
That’s awesome. I’m so jealous! Did he have FRESH ones there, or had he dried them? I don’t think they stay fresh very long. Were they green or red?
I went to a restaurant in California where they had some pao cai. In the pao cai I could see they used fresh ones still on vine.
Maybe smuggled illegally? 🙁
Interesting! With the explosion of interest in Sichuan food, more ingredients are becoming available every day. Perhaps you can get fresh Sichuan pepper in California now. Or, as you said, perhaps they have direct connections.
Taylor Holliday: “I also agree with you about store-bought Sichuan pepper. The exported product is often old by the time we buy it and (in the U.S.) always irradiated”
About that, I’ve read a comment from Fucshia Dunlop on egullet.org
fiore: “your tongue only numb for 5 minutes?! with some of the stuff I’ve tried it’s more like 15 or 20 (gradually diminishing)”
In his book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China we can read this:
“In all my years of research for my Sichuanese cookery book, I never actually saw a Sichuan pepper tree. For that, you have to go to the high, dry slopes of various places in northern and western Sichuan. But of all the pepper grown in the province, none is better than that of the remote county of Hanyuan in the southwestern mountains, and within Hanyuan County itself, nothing compares to the sumptuously aromatic pepper of Qingxi Township. Even within Qingxi there are finer distinctions for aficionados: if you want to reach the very pinnacle of peppery perfection, you must accept nothing less than pepper harvested from the trees of niu shi po, the Ox Market Slopes, at the village of Jianli just outside Qingxi itself. Once, this pepper was sent in tribute to the imperial court. ‘Qingxi Tribute Pepper’, they still call it here.
‘This area produces about ten tonnes of pepper a year,’ said our guide, as we surveyed the prickly trees and the snow-blurred terraces of the valley. ‘And it’s the finest of all. They call the tribute pepper wa wa jiao, “baby pepper”, because each pair of peppercorns also has a pair of tiny, embryonic peppercorns, or “babies” (wa wa) at its base.’
“A video where you can see the wawa Huā Jiāo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eb63OdnvKDE
and another of the harvest: https://youtu.be/0yTA3IB1Flo
According to the analysis of physical and chemical agriculture Sichuan University it has an aromatic oil content of 7-9%, much higher than other domestic origin (aromatic oil content of 3-5%)
Taylor Holliday: “You told me by email that your own Sichuan pepper tree is growing quite well in Belgium. Who would have thought? I’m going to try to grow one in Nashville now that I know that. Please link to a picture of your tree here so others can see it and be jealous. Thanks!”
spring is here 😀
For those who wants to learn more, here’s some usefull links:
More great video! I now know the next thing I’m going to try to get my daughter to translate for me. 🙂
And your tree looks amazing! How many years does one take to bear fruit?
I did see a stray Sichuan pepper tree once in the countryside outside Chengdu, but I have never been to Hanyuan. Thanks for the reminder about Fuchsia’s research on it. And all the other great resources.
It begin to bear fruit within three to four years.
A full mature tree can produce around 4 pounds of dry pepper.
And do you know this dish ?
花椒叶粑粑的做法 a Sichuan delicacy with the young pepper leaves : https://youtu.be/1g80d8-nzT4?t=27m30s
Wow! I wish my French wasn’t so rusty. That is Sichuan pepper leaves that she is deep-frying? So cool. I’ve never seen that. I wonder how strong/numbing they are? You should try it with your leaves and let us know!
Yes, it’s the young Sichuan pepper leaves deep fried like a tempura.
I’ve tried with the leaves from my Zanthoxylum Schinifolium (those from my Zanthoxylum Simulans don’t have a distinctive smell) they are not numbing but very fragrant, the smell is very similar to the prickly oil.
i’m dissapointed, it’s it’s more or less tasteless. once fried.
They look good! It’s an interesting experiment, even if a bit disappointing. Thanks for letting us know.
Unlike the case of “true” pepper, from the genus Piper, where green peppercorns are indeed the unripe seed pods that when ripe produce black and white pepper, “Green Sichuan pepper” (青花椒) isn’t the unripe pod of red Sichuan pepper (花椒), it’s from a different species in the prickly ash genus.. Wikipedia has an English-language page for the genus Zanthoxylum (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanthoxylum) which lists quite a few related plants that share the “ma” flavor to various degrees, as well as a Chinese-language page specifically for 青花椒.
I’ve been shopping for Chinese foodstuffs for many years, but only recently have come across Green sichuan pepper in local grocery stores here in NYC. But as it sometimes the case, when it rains, it pours, and I’ve recently seen several different brands of green Sichuan pepper in Flushing Queens’ Chinatown, and also on several retailers’ websites. Commercially prepared infused oil made from green Sichuan pepper seems to be even more common, for what that’s worth. Happy hunting!
Thanks for you comments. I’ve been told in Sichuan that green and red hua jiao are the same plant at different stages of ripeness, but it makes sense that they would be different plants/species. I wonder why in Sichuan you see only fresh green Sichuan pepper on the vine and never fresh red…
the green sichuan peppercorn is Zan schinifolium
I wonder what species is the blue pepper they talk about in this video
Update on my tree, now you can see baby peppercorns 😀
Cool! Are your trees green or red pepper?
red once ripe, some pics:
Nice! Those are looking great.
I’ve tried a very potent brand from China as good as the fresh pepper.
The Hanyuan pepper 汉源贡椒 is on the China GI product list, look for the brands with the logo
Thanks for the tip, Sub! I haven’t seen this brand in the U.S. yet but will be on the lookout. I’ve noticed that specific brands of things come in waves. Whatever the importers are bringing in during that period will be on the shelves of Chinese stores across the U.S., then suddenly they’ll be replaced by some new brands.
Also, I have some huajiao brought back from Chengdu that’s been in my freezer for a year and a half but is still super potent. So I suggest storing it in the freezer.
I have a couple questions regarding Hua Jiao (Sichuan Peppercorn).
In some texts I see that only the husk is used, and the black seed inside the husk is discarded. In some texts it’s the opposite. In some, the entire peppercorn is used – husk and seed alike. What is your experience in using hua jiao? What is the most common use? Thanks, Jeff
Thanks for your great question. The seed pod of hua jiao, which literally means flower pepper, usually “flowers,” or opens up, when dried and releases that black seed. It is the seed pod, or husk, itself that is eaten. Processors apparently sift the seeds out, but there are always a few remaining in a batch of Sichuan pepper—and usually some small twigs as well. I usually pull out the biggest twigs by hand but don’t worry too much about either them or the seeds. After roasting and grinding, I do sift out the yellow bits of the husk that don’t break down well.
I Always remove the seeds if I found some, I hate the grit.
A machine used to remove the seeds
Hi! What is the machine you are talking about? Thanks!
Where to buy hua Jiao pepper plants:
I am growing two beautiful hua jiao plants – I purchased one plant from each of the two following nurseries: http://www.bayflora.com/ Szechuan Pepper will be a link in the left side menu. It came as a tall, thin, healthy stalk with a great root system. The second location is https://www.nicholsgardennursery.com on this site, enter Zanthoxylum in the search box. This was delivered as a short, multi-stalk bush. Delivered a little dry, but reasonably healthy with a good root. Seems to be growing well.
Interesting! I didn’t know you could buy Sichuan pepper trees in the U.S. Thanks for the info!
Taylor, I feel so bad. I didn’t know so many people loved this pepper. I live in Southern California and have a huge tree that I practically trim down every year. The peppercorn pop their seeds and the fruit dries on the branches. The only ones enjoying them are the birds.
Oh, no! You could be selling them! 😁 Your tree sounds old and valuable, at least to some of us. Maybe we should trade, because I’d love to taste some hua jiao grown in the U.S.
So I was running out of my first batch of red Sichuan peppercorns I bought many years ago, and decided to splurge on some proper ingredients this weekend. Fortunately there are several well-stocked Asian grocery stores in my town, and I was able to get both green peppercorn, Pixian douban jiang (qinglin brand? It said Pi county on the label) and prickly ash oil. Yesterday I made Dan Dan noodles, and was a bit underwhelmed. Even after making my own chili oil it just did not seem to have the same kick as before. I tried the fiery beef today, and it was quite a difference maker. Less of the intense chili heat on the back of the mouth and more of the lip and tongue numbing ma la. Can hardly wait to do the water boiled beef with the proper broad bean paste.
Did you go to Great Wall? The one in Duluth is the best Chinese supermarket I’ve ever seen in the U.S. I wish I could get to Atlanta more often.
Don’t quite understand your comments on the dishes. Did your new Sichuan peppercorns taste markedly different than the old ones?
I went to Buford Highway Farmers Market – it’s huge and has a lot of large specialty sections (Eastern European, Hispanic, Caribbean, separate Japanese, Chinese, etc.) so it’s a bit more useful to me as I cook in a variety of styles. The green peppercorns do taste markedly different than the red to me. It just seemed that frr some reason the actual ma la effect varied so much between recipes. I got some red ones (“Dragon brand dried capsicum”) and I make dan dan noodles all the time so I’ll see if it makes a difference. Time for some new recipes here btw – I need some more things to try! 🙂
Oh, I know it well. Love BHFM!
I do indeed need to add some new recipes. I’ve plenty to work on, just no time. Will try to get back to it soon!
Whenever I eat Sichuan food in a restaurant in California, and order la zi ji or others, their dishes are extremely numbing.
Whenever I buy “hua jiao” or even “hua jiao you” in stores for recipes calling for “Sichuan peppercorns”, they are disappointingly not as numbing.
Then I learned there is “hua jiao” and “ma jiao”. What is the difference between these? Are they different species of peppercorns? Are “ma jiao” and not “hua jiao” used in numbing dishes such as “kou shui ji”
Hua jiao is the Sichuan name for Sichuan pepper, and means flower pepper. Ma jiao just means numbing pepper. They are the same thing. There are different species of Sichuan pepper, but I’m guessing yours were weak because they were just too old. By the time they are imported here and sit on the shelves awhile, they can lose a lot of their potency. They also sometimes take on a weird chemical smell. I would recommend buying Sichuan pepper from a spice store that has a lot of turnover and guarantees their freshness. Or at Asian markets, look for bright colored ones with a recent production date (which is usually printed on the package somewhere). It can make a huge difference.
Another link with differents names and growing area of the Sichuan pepper :
Thanks, Sub. This is interesting. I’m surprised how many different provinces grow Sichuan pepper.
I have been buying the vacuum packed green Sichuan peppercorns from Hong Kong Supermarket on the corner of Hester and Elizabeth Streets in New York’s Chinatown, and they are by far the best quality I have found outside of China. They have made a marked improvement in my dishes. I won’t be buying the stale tasting conventionally bagged or jarred ones again.
Incidentally, the same store also has Sichuan “Facing Heaven” dried peppers at the moment — but they seem to be going fast and they didn’t have too many left on the shelves when I was there yesterday.
Do you mean the vacuum-packed fresh green pepper, as shown in my photos? Or dried? I’ve never seen the fresh here.
Sorry, these are not fresh as in “just picked,” but rather “fresh” in the sense that they are dried but vacuum packed such that they are quite fragrant and not at all stale.
Thanks for clarification. I will look for them!
Discovered your site over the weekend and am beyond elated to connect with a like minded group of devotees to Mala and the incomparable delights of authentic Sichuan cuisine! I am a non-Asian guy (Eastern & Western European heritage) who married into an amazing and wonderful Chinese-American family in which sharing/teaching the art and technique of fine, authentic regional Chinese cooking here in the US has been a ongoing tradition for well over 60 yrs. My in-laws authored/co-authored & published several successful Chinese cookbooks beginning in the late 60’s with “An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking” (first edition 1970 Crown Publishers, https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Chinese-Food-Cooking/dp/0517506610) now long out of print despite over 20 some-odd printings I believe. And so I have been beyond fortunate to receive an excellent education in that other love of my life 😉
My father-in-law, now a remarkably healthy and vital 98 yr old man who still swims ~600 meters almost every day (!!!), recently authored and self-published another unique volume titled “Chinese Cooking Along the Grand Canal”. Not pitching here, just proudly sharing… My wife inherited her parents’ culinary talents and from the time we began dating in the early 70s I was mentored by them as well
That said, I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I am addicted to Mala! haha Your site is an amazing find and what a great community of fellow aficionados of the indescribable joys of Sichuan cooking. We live in NJ about an hour south of NYC and I appreciated one of your other commenters having shared his go-to source for vacuum packed dried green Hua Jiao peppercorns.
Somehow we are also fortunate to have a smallish, rather unassuming authentic Sichaun restaurant not far from our home (15 to 20 mins!) that while small and offering a somewhat limited menu does it right day in and day out. The owner, his wife and we have become friends over the time we’ve frequented their modest establishment, and frequent is definitely the right term there! lol Kind of a standing joke among us all but I know they greatly appreciate the fact that WE appreciate them and their consistently outstanding creations.
Not to go on ad nauseum here, just could not resist expressing my delight at finding your terrific site. Xiè xie nǐ!
Thank you so much for this completely delightful and enlightening letter. I’m happy to know about your in-laws’ cookbook—it has great reviews on Amazon and is obviously a classic that I have somehow failed to know about. And you should definitely promote any Chinese cookbook written by a 98-year-old, life-time cook. Where can we find that one?
Welcome to our mala community! I’m glad you have your own Sichuan restaurant gem nearby. More and more people tell me that…so I think the real-Sichuan-cuisine revolution is upon us.
I found the book mentioned in the above letter at Amazon. It looks like a wonderful book.
It DOES look wonderful. I didn’t realize that Mr. Chang was a founder of Flavor and Fortune magazine with Jacqueline Newman. What a history he has! Thanks for sharing.
In Japan, we use lots of young green Sichuan peppercorns and young leaves in cooking, but only in the green immature state. The plant grows all over japan and I have 2 in my yard.
The very young leaves are enjoyed fresh as a topping on food in the spring time. They are not cooked but eaten “raw”.
Here are some samples:
You can see the young green Sichuan peppercorns in with the slightly dried tiny fish.
This is eaten with rice at breakfast and is really yummy. This is called “chirimen jyako”.
You can see the young leaves called “ki no me” in a box, for sale
In the spring, Sichuan pepper leaves are collected and used on springtime dishes. Here you can see lots of examples. These young leaves are called “Ki no Me” in Japanese. In the spring time, even small supermarkets will sell small packets of the leaves so that housewives can decorate their springtime dishes.
We can also get the ripe, red Sichuan peppercorns that are used in Chinese cooking. I am going to get more of the spices you recommend. Your recipes are awe inspiring!
Thanks, Pamela, for this great addition to the Sichuan pepper discussion. My readers are so knowledgeable!
Can you eat those whole green peppercorns? They must be pretty mild. The red and green in China are different species, so the green in Japan is probably yet another species. Do the ones in your yard actually turn red at some point?
Apparently some Chinese eat the leaves too, as another reader here once commented. When he tried eating some, he said the taste was very mild.
The green peppercorn can be eaten early when the seed inside is not yet formed.
The pepper used in Japan is Z. piperitum ( there is 5 subspecies) for commercial
harvesting, thornless varieties called the Asakura sansho (Z. piperitum DC. var. inerme Makino)
are widely cultivated.
Sub is the resident Sichuan pepper expert. Did you eat any of the young ones from your tree?
I had bought some Sichuan peppercorns at Posharp, but in true Yankee fashion I decided to use up the tired old peppercorns I had from the local Chinese grocery. But when I made I made Zi Ran Yang Rou the other day, I tossed the old peppercorns. What a difference the fresh ones made! The flavor, fragrance, and especially the numbing quality were all much stronger. Freshness really, REALLY makes a difference with Sichuan pepper.
Freshness DOES make a huge difference. And if you think those peppercorns are fresh and potent, you should try ours! (Yes, that’s self-promotional, but it’s true. 🙂 )
Glad you experienced how the food’s supposed to taste!
I’ve been trying to replicate some recipes from a local Sichua place in Houston with peppercorns I pick up at the Asian supermarket. I guess they’re of lower quality, because it never has the zing of the restaurant…it’s like an order-of-magnitude difference, no matter how much I use.
It could also be that I’m not toasting it (cooking it in oil), but I definitely need to try some higher quality peppercorns.
Yep. The original quality and the freshness both play a huge role in the numbing power, fragrance and taste. I seriously want to make ours at The Mala Market into a perfume, they smell so good.
For the first time I’ve found green sichuan pepper in my asian store and I didnt like it !
Tasted Really piney, close to turpentine oil :/
Oh, Sub, you can’t mean that! I’m assuming you got some bad stuff. Green hua jiao is amazing. I may even like it better than red…. You should try ours. But since you’re in Belgium and can’t, maybe you should plant a green pepper tree to go with your red one so you can try the fresh stuff. 🙂
I’ve already a green sichuan pepper tree at home (Z. schinifolium) the taste is very citrusy & numbing, I love it !
Oh, I get it. You were referring specifically to the one you bought at the market. Yes, they can be quite chemical-like, depending on grade, age and treatment of the peppercorns.
I am kind of new to the real Sichuan cuisine, having been introduced by a coworker two years ago. I have found five restaurants near me, tried three of them several times and loved them. I ALWAYS eat the peppercorns, and they’re always soft and pleasantly numbing. I just have not found good ones at a local Asian market. I got a bag of …rocks once. They are NOT the soft ones like at the restaurants. All I can do is grind them into sand or pick them out. Are the ones at your shop soft-ish?
This is an interesting question. Sichuan peppercorns, like all spices, must be partially dehydrated to prevent spoilage, and are not usually soft. However, it sounds like you may have gotten an inferior product with twigs and many seeds, which are indeed unpleasantly brittle and sandy. The peppercorns themselves will definitely soften up as you cook them, though really fresh ones usually can’t be eaten straight in much quantity as they are so numbing. Look for bright colored ones with few twigs and seeds. And of course I suggest buying premium, fresh peppercorns from The Mala Market or from another specialty spice purveyor. Thanks for writing!
I have no experience working with Szechuan peppercorns, and just bought my first bag. On getting them home, I read the bag and was surprised by the warning on it. It appears to say that I need to rinse and the peppercorns multiple times and then boil them at least once before using them, and then keep them in the refrigerator. Is this typical? I thought you only needed to grind them into a power first. What is your advice? If you think I’ve gotten a low-grade product, I’ll be happy to toss them and buy some from you, but would also like your opinion on what I’m seeing. Thanks!
Oh my! That is pretty alarming, and I think I would advise you not to eat those. Not just because we sell premium Sichuan peppercorns, but because Sichuan pepper absolutely should not need to be washed, boiled and refrigerated. This raises a red flag that says to me that the processor or importer does not believe their product is clean and safe. I have just recently spent a lot of time researching the safe processing and storage of Sichuan pepper (and talking repeatedly with the USDA for am article I am writing about it). Sichuan peppercorns that have been hygienically processed for export should only need to be heated during the cooking process or ROASTED and ground into a powder before using. The heat applied during cooking or roasting should be sufficient for any well-processed peppercorn. However, lots of crap still gets in the country. Check out the bag and make sure it has an importer and U.S. address listed, as otherwise it is an illegal import and who knows where it’s been. Not to scare you or anything! 🙂 (As an aside, I do sometimes refrigerate or freeze my dried peppercorns for longer storage, but I definitely don’t wash or boil them first.) Thanks for this eye-opening question!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
About the germination: this year I’ve tried to soak the seeds in sulfuric acid for 1 hour to help the germination process, it’s by far the best method ( I’ve read that you can also use hair removal depilatory cream)
Now I have a lot of seedlings in my garden
You’re my hero! Now if only you lived close enough to give me some of those seedlings…
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.
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: https://www.amazon.com/KRUPS-Electric-Grinder-Stainless-3-Ounce/dp/B00004SPEU/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1522190030&sr=8-3&keywords=coffee+grinder
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!
Is there any place to buy fresh peppercorn then?
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!
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!
Love to hear that! Thanks for letting us know.
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.
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!
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.
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.