One of the most important and unique flavors in Sichuan cuisine comes from the Sichuan peppercorn. It brings a lemony-citrusy floral flavor along with its unique numbing quality. The combined with hot chili peppers, it creates what is known as málà (麻辣) or numbing-spicy. This flavor combination is prevalent in many dishes from the Sichuan region and surrounding regions. As is typical with a lot of food names translated from Chinese, the name is a little deceiving. Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns, but the seed pods of the prickly ash tree, a member of the citrus family. So, they are more closely related to lemons and oranges than the black peppercorns in your pepper grinder. There are many different species of prickly ash trees (Sichuan peppercorn comes from the variety Zanthoxylum simulans), and while not natively found in the US, they are available for purchase if you want to try and grow one on your own.
When purchasing Sichuan peppercorn, you’ll find two types, red and green. The red is more common, but with the Internet, sourcing the green is really no more difficult than the red variety. The green variety has a stronger numbing effect, and some think a more pronounced lemony-citrusy flavor as well. However, that doesn’t mean you should opt for the green simply because they are like “extra strength” red Sichuan peppercorns. Some people find the numbing effect of red Sichuan peppercorn to be very strong, so having a more potent variety may not be useful anyway!
Look for a bright red or green color. Older (and less potent) peppercorn loses its color over time. Also, know that the part you want is actually the seed pod, not the seed itself. The seeds are black little balls, and the pod is what is either red or green. So, if you can see inside the bag, look to see that you have very few black seeds. You’ll likely find that lower quality and cheaper packages contain more seeds. The seeds provide no flavor, and even ground, have a hard bite to them. When you chew on the seed or pieces of seed, it’ll feel like when you bite down on a grain of sand that wasn’t washed out of a shellfish or maybe a leek.
When using Sichuan peppercorn, start by carefully picking through the seed pods looking for the black seeds. Discard them. Then lightly toast them in a dry frying pan over low to medium low heat. When you can smell them or the pods begin to look wet (ie the oil is leaching out), they are toasted. Move them to a mortar and pestle, let them cool, then grind them to a fine powder. Pass that through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of the biggest bits and any seeds that you may have missed. Use the fine sifted powder!
Sichuan peppercorns are used in many of the recipes in my cookbook, Essential Chinese Hot Pot Cookbook!