The Electrifying Case of Sichuan Peppers

Posted by: Kelli Bergthold

Tagged in: tasty travel , history , fiery foods

Sichuan peppers
Dried Sichuan peppers & husks

Sichuan pepper is a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, but you may not know the whole story behind this unique spice. If you’re a fan of Asian cuisine, there are a few things you should know about Sichuan peppers.

  1. Sichuan peppers (known in Chinese as hua jiao) aren’t related to chili peppers or black pepper. They’re actually the fruits of the prickly ash tree (Zanthoxylum piperitum)! To make things more confusing, they’ve been marketed as ”brown peppercorns”, "Szechwan pepper," "Chinese pepper," "Japanese pepper," "aniseed pepper," "Sprice pepper," "Chinese prickly-ash,"
    Sichuan Pepper Plant
    Sichuan pepper plant
    "Fagara," "sansho," "Nepal pepper," "Indonesian lemon pepper," and others.
  2. Sichuan peppers aren’t exactly “hot” in the way white pepper or chili pepperscan taste.Instead, along with a citrusy flavor, the tiny fruits cause a numbing,tingling sensation in the mouth. The active ingredient in Sichuan peppers is hydroxyl alpha sanshool (or “sanshool” for short). So, while capsaicincausesspiciness in chile peppers, and piperidine causes the hot, biting flavor ofblack and white peppercorns, sanshool causes a “pins and needles” sensation, as if you’ve stuck a nine-volt battery on your tongue! The Chinese have a word for this; they call it ma la, which literally means “numbing” and “spicy.”
  3. Up until the sixteenth century, Sichuan peppers had been the primary “spicy”ingredient in Asian cuisine. This changed after Christopher Columbus introduced the chili pepper to the Old World. Hot chili peppers and peppercorns spread rapidly across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and suddenly, there was a new hot spice in town.
  4. Sichuan pepper was actually banned in the United States the same year LSD was made
    Fresh green peppercorns
    Fresh green Sichuan peppers
    illegal. While the pepper didn’t have quite the reputation LSD had, the FDA banned imports of Sichuan peppers out of fears that it would infect American citrus groves with a rare citrus canker disease. The ban was lifted in 2005, and you can now find Sichuan peppers in markets across the country.
  5. The berries are good for more than just cooking. Some of the medicinal attributes of the berries include pain relief, weight loss, food retention, and especially toothache suppression. The North American prickly ash is known as the ‘Toothache Tree’ because the powdered bark was used as a toothache remedy and to heal wounds.

Want to try out the tongue-numbing berry yourself? Click here for recipes.

Learn more about the spice!

Spice Profile: Peppercorns by Dave DeWitt
The Tongue-Numbing "Flower Pepper" of Sichuan Province by Kimberly Dukes
Three Things You Didn't Know About Sichuan Peppers by Darren Lim

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