Called peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns or Zanthoxylum bungeanum, are not actually peppercorns at all. Sichuan peppercorns are the outer pod of the fruit of the prickly ash bush, a plant native to China.
They have a volatile oil content of about 4%-7% which are mostly made up of terpenes.
Indigenous to China, Sichuan peppercorns are also called aniseed pepper, Chinese pepper, Chinese prickly-ash, Fagara, Indonesian lemon pepper, Japanese pepper, Nepal pepper, or Szechwan pepper. You’ll also find these alternative spellings – Szechuan, Szechwan and Schezuan. They are also sometimes called “Sansho Pepper” but this is a mistake as Sansho Pepper, while in a similar family, is actually a different plant entirely. It is also occasionally called dried prickly ash or flower pepper. In French it is called “poivre de setchuan,” in German it is “Szechuan-pfeffer,” in Hindi it is “tilfda,” in Japanese it is confusingly called “sansho” in Portuguese it is “piment sechuan,” and in Russian you will hear “sychuan skij perets.”
Cooking with Sichuan Peppercorns
There is a big amount of complex and surprising flavor packed into this relatively small spice that makes it perfect for intensifying the flavors of cheese, chicken, seafood, and vegetables. Home cooks like to use it to add and exotic twist to their everyday meals, using it in place of black pepper in many cases.
Sichuan peppercorns are a key spice in the cuisine of the Chinese province of Sichuan and they’re used widely in Batak, Bhutanese, Japanese, Konkani, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Toba cuisines. It is also used in Nepali and Tibetan cooking. Momo is a popular dish in these Himalayan region areas that is spiced with Sichuan peppercorns.
In American cuisine, you will find Sichuan peppercorns popular on peaches, with vanilla bean ice cream, or on fruit tartes. The delicate citrus qualities of the spice really help this zingy little spice stand out against sweeter flavors, like those found in these common dessert options. It’s also quite yummy on yogurt or with cottage cheese.
Dry-roasting these berries helps with bringing out their best flavor. To dry-roast, put the berries in heavy frying pan over a medium high heat for 3-4 minutes. When they get hot, the berries will begin to smoke so monitor this process carefully. Remove from heat and let them cool and then grind as needed. Dispose of any burnt berries before grinding as they will give your food a bitter, harsh flavor. It is recommended to do roasting and grinding in small batches as the flavor of the berries dissipates quickly.
What do They Taste Like?
Sichuan Peppercorns are quite fragrant and provide and unusual, sharp flavor that begins mildly warm and has earthy, lemony undertones. The flavor is also slightly numbing to the mouth, which is a sensation that the Chinese call “ma.”
The active ingredient in sichuan peppercorns, the sanshool, causes a reaction on the lips similar to a vibration at 50 hertz. This is the same frequency of power grids across the globe!