Sichuan pepper, also spelled Szechuan pepper, is a spice that is popular in Sichuan cuisine. Sichuan peppers are recognised for their fragrant, floral taste and the tingly numbing sensation they create in the mouth when eating. This numbing effect is thought to help enhance the flavour of other ingredients used in a dish.
Although Sichuan peppers have the same peppery heat as black peppercorns, they are actually not related to black pepper and are a part of the citrus family. Sichuan peppers are produced from the seed husks of two species of the prickly ash shrub. Only the husks are used as prickly ash shrub seeds are too gritty and sand-like to be properly chewed.
Sichuan peppercorns are added to dishes whole or can be ground into a powder and combined with other ingredients, as in the popular Chinese five-spice mix. They are widely used in Chinese, Nepalese, Kashmiri, Tibetan, and Bhutanese cooking.
History of Sichuan pepper
Before chilli peppers were introduced to China, Sichuan peppers and ginger were the two main ingredients used to add heat to a dish in Northern Chinese cuisine. The peppers come from the seed husks of the prickly ash shrub, which grows naturally in China and Taiwan, with similar species found in the Himalayas, Thailand, and Indonesia. The peppercorns get their name from the Sichuan province in China, where they are a popular ingredient in many dishes. Szechuan is the more commonly used, Romanised spelling of the word.
What does Sichuan pepper taste like?
Sichuan peppers are fragrant, citrusy, and floral with a familiar heat that is about the same level as black pepper. Their aroma has been compared to the smell of lavender. Although not a flavour, the most obvious result of eating Sichuan pepper is that familiar numbness and tingly sensation in the mouth. The tingly numbing feeling of Sichuan pepper has been described by food historian Harold McGee as producing ‘a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current’.
How to use Sichuan pepper in cooking
Sichuan peppers can be used in various ways in cooking. The fresh green husks can be used, but it is most common to use dried Sichuan pepper for cooking. The dried peppers should first be roasted in the oven or toasted on the stove before grinding or using in cooking. Sichuan pepper in its whole or powdered form can be used to flavour meat and noodle dishes, as an infusion in oil, or mixed with salt and used as a condiment. It is a part of the popular Chinese five-spice mix, combined with star anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon.
Sichuan pepper, along with chilli peppers, is one of the main ingredients used to flavour Chongqing hotpot. Sichuan peppers are also popular infused in oil, which is then used as a dressing, dipping sauce, or condiment. Sichuan pepper leaves can also be used to flavour soups and fried foods. In Nepal, Sichuan peppers are used to flavour momos.
What is a substitute for Sichuan pepper?
If you’re following a recipe that calls for Sichuan pepper but don’t have access to any, you can substitute it with a combination of black pepper and coriander seeds. While nothing really comes close to the flavour and tingly numbness of Sichuan pepper, coriander seeds impart similar floral citrusy notes while black pepper provides the heat. Tellicherry peppercorns or grains of paradise can also be used as a substitute for Sichuan peppers.