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Sichuan Pepper

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By Eric Vellend

Sichuan pepper has no relation to pepper - black, white or chili. In fact, it's not even spicy. It does, however, everything to do with the notoriously bold cooking of China's Sichuan province (sometimes spelt 'Szechuan or Szechwan').

Sichuan peppercorns are the reddish-brown dried berries of a prickly ash tree. The outer husk surrounds a bitter black seed, which can be found in small quantities in most bags of the spice and should be separated along with any stems and discarded.

In addition to a lemony flavour and peppery aroma, Sichuan pepper imparts an illicit numbing sensation to the tongue and lips due to the presence of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. For this reason, the one-two karate chop of dried chilies and Sichuan pepper is called “hot and numbing” in Sichuan cuisine.

Whole Sichuan peppercorns can be thrown into the hot oil at the beginning of a stir-fry, but I've found that they are hard to single out and biting into one of these suckers produces the kind of mouth numbing that belongs in a dentist chair, not at the dinner table. Sichuan peppercorns are best dry roasted in a pan over a medium-low heat until fragrant then ground in mortar or coffee grinder. The resulting spice adds a last minute sparkle of flavour to tofu and noodle dishes.

Ground Sichuan pepper is one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder, and is delicious mixed into the seasoned flour for deep-fried seafood and tofu. It is also incredible in Sichuan-spiced salt, an addictive dip for boiled or roasted poultry made by combining 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, 3/4 teaspoon of ground Sichuan pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of five-spice powder.

In Japan, Sichuan pepper is called sansho and is one of the ingredients in shichimi togarashi, the seven-spice condiment that can be found at every Japanese noodle joint worth their salt. Sichuan pepper is also popular in Tibetan and Bhutanese cuisine.

My advice for newcomers to this spice is to exercise restraint. Unless you are a fan of Novocaine, anything more than a healthy pinch is too much of a good thing.


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