Sourcing Huajiao (Sichuan Pepper, Sichuan Peppercorn)

Print

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. 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 heritage Sichuan ingredients and Chinese pantry essentials.

Recipes you might like

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

91 Comments

  1. 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:

    #1
    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”.
    http://www.yayoi-ojako.co.jp/

    #2
    You can see the young leaves called “ki no me” in a box, for sale
    http://temaeitamae.jp/mart/Jg/herb/902.html

    #3
    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.
    https://snapdish.co/search/%E6%9C%A8%E3%81%AE%E8%8A%BD

    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!

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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!

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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. 🙂

  4. I’ve already a green sichuan pepper tree at home (Z. schinifolium) the taste is very citrusy & numbing, I love it !

    1. 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.

  5. 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?

    1. Hi Fritz,
      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!

  6. 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!

    1. 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!