6 Things To Know About Sichuan Peppers

Sichuan/Szechuan cooking is spicy, yes. But don’t lay that on the Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan/Szechuan cuisine incorporates many bold ingredients that may be confusing to keep straight, like Sichuan chili flakes, spice blends, and chili oils, which use red chile peppers and Sichuan pepper to create your favorite fiery dishes. Sichuan peppercorns aren't spicy hot. What they are is a culinary experience like no other. The name comes from the Sichuan province of northern China, which formerly was spelled "Szechuan" in English. Here's more about what you need to know about them to fully appreciate the thrill.

Six Things To Know About Sichuan Peppers

1. Sichuan pepper is not spicy hot like a chile pepper. It's not a chile pepper at all, in fact, nor is it a chili pepper blend.

2. It's not peppercorny in any kind of black or white peppercorn way. It's not actually from a pepper plant.

3. The "peppercorns" are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush. Yes, Sichuan pepper is its own funky little monkey, thank you very much. These prickly ash tree berries are a member of the citrus family. What is used in cooking is actually the husk of the berry. The black seeds inside the husks are discarded as inedible in the process of cultivating Sichuan pepper as we know it (and buy it).

4. You experience Sichuan pepper as a peculiar tingling sensation. Food-science guy, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, equates the sensation to a mild electrical shock: "touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue." So maybe don't eat Sichuan while taking a bath.

5. When eating Sichuan pepper, you may feel a bit...well, odd. Harold McGee says the pepper seems to mess with different types of nerve endings simultaneously, inducing "sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive," and leaving you with an overall experience that could "cause a kind of general neurological confusion." That sounds troubling. But the feeling is actually kind of invigorating. Pop rocks in the mouth! Tingling tongues are primed for the spicy heat of the actual chile peppers. It's a strange, kind of exciting combo of sensations. So it's definitely reassuring to know in advance that nothing alarming is happening.

6. Sichuan pepper is a key component of Chinese Five Spice. This spice blend is a good entrée into the world of Sichuan pepper, mingled as it is among flavor friends. What are the other four spices? Fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves.

Recipes Using Sichuan Pepper

OK, now let's dig into some top-rated recipes with Sichuan peppers. Some call for full-on Sichuan peppercorns. Others call for Chinese Five Spice, which, because it's a blend of spices, may not reveal the full funkiness of the Sichuan pepper. But it's a tasty, tingly introduction.

Check out our collection of Chile Pepper Recipes.

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