Sourcing Hua Jiao (Sichuan Peppercorn)
My Favorite Buzz: Sichuan Peppercorn~~
“My mouth is sleeping,” Fong Chong said as she worked her way through a plate of mala-flavored cabbage stir-fry. “But she opens and lets me eat.”
And there you have it in a nutshell, the addictive power of Sichuan pepper.
If there is one taste most closely associated with Sichuan cuisine, it is Sichuan peppercorn, the numbing spice. The bride of the chili pepper in many Sichuan dishes, it is the má—numbing—to chili pepper’s là—spicy hot—in the word málà, which is practically synonymous with Sichuan food. While many cuisines make use of the chili pepper, no other cuisine features Sichuan pepper—which the Sichuanese call hua jiao, or flower pepper, because of its flowery shape when dried—so abundantly and unabashedly.
My daughter Fong Chong came to us straight from Canton (Guangzhou) at age 11, and we assumed that she would shun Sichuan pepper. However, I knew she liked spicy food, so after a couple of months I made that mala cabbage, stir-fried with dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppers. In this case, I used whole Sichuan peppercorns, as it was merely meant to flavor the oil. But I used too much and it was too numbing, even for me.
But not for Fong Chong, even though an initial aversion to Sichuan pepper is understandable if you didn’t grow up with it. It is most definitely an acquired taste. But I have always argued that it’s an acquired taste that quickly turns to an addictive one, as its unique and appealing citrusy smell and flavor far outweigh its tingly feel.
However, it’s important to learn how to eat hua jiao. You don’t put a whole Sichuan peppercorn in your mouth and bite down—unless you’re looking for some anesthesia. It will indeed numb your tongue and mouth, and while that is not totally unpleasant, it is weird. Like the hot sensation of chili pepper, the numbing of Sichuan pepper is detected not by the sensory nerves for taste but by those for touch. Very recent research shows that those Sichuan pepper vibrations are actually about 50 hertz strong, which explains the tingling. So if you see a whole Sichuan peppercorn in a dish, avoid chomping on it. It’s there for flavor only, and a slight buzz. The more appealing way to eat it is ground into tiny chunks or powder.
If you have had Sichuan food in America during the past few years made the Sichuan way (vs. the Canto way), you probably encountered hua jiao. But this wasn’t always the case in the U.S., where Sichuan pepper was suspiciously absent from “Szechwan” food for most of its history here. The reason is fairly obvious, since almost all of America’s Chinese restaurants were historically run by immigrants from Canton and other southern China provinces. Their cuisines don’t even make use of chilies, much less Sichuan pepper. Those tastes were just too overwhelmingly bold for their liking, so when they made Sichuan dishes they cut down on the chilies and jettisoned the Sichuan pepper altogether, robbing the food of its kick and, therefore, its true identity.
Another reason “Szechwan” food in America was long missing it mala mojo was that the Food and Drug Administration banned the Sichuan peppercorn from importation from 1968 to 2005, fearing it could carry a citrus canker that could spread to citrus crops. Now that the ban has been lifted, Sichuan pepper has come in with a roar befitting its roar of a taste. Two recent Chinese-food cult figures, Peter Chang and Danny Bowien, have ridden it to fame, and even your local Sichuan restaurant may be going heavier on the ma nowadays.
Sourcing Sichuan Peppercorn
Hua jiao is actually the fruit of a shrub related to the prickly ash that is native to Sichuan. You’ll sometimes see Sichuan peppercorn translated as prickly ash in the U.S. The best is grown in Hanyuan County. As the little berry dries, it spreads open into a flower shape and releases it seeds, which are not eaten. In Sichuan, you find hua jiao in an array of colors, from green to brownish red to bright red, which (contrary to what I previously wrote here) are different species. You also see it freshly picked during some times of the year or freshly vacuum packed, and the Chengdunese make liberal use of the fresh-on-the-vine Sichuan pepper as a garnish.
Everyone seems to have a different opinion about which is more strong and numbing, the green or the red. I feel the green is more intense, but it also just has a different flavor, more fresh and piney than the red. I love it, but I guess we’ll just have to wait for scientists to test the vibrations of the green version alongside the red to see which has the bigger buzz.
Because Sichuan pepper, like all spices, has to be sterilized before it enters the U.S., and because what you get here is often fairly old, not having a big turnover, it often takes on a strong, chemical smell that is not at all like the smell of the freshly dried stuff. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how it smells before you open the package. I would recommend buying Sichuan pepper from a spice shop where you can smell it first.
And of course I would recommend buying it from The Mala Project SHOP. We’ve imported both red and green Sichuan pepper, premium grade, with no additives and few twigs and seeds (which are common in lesser-quality hua jiao). From recently harvested Hanyuan County crop, they have the intense aroma, flavor, and numbing sensation Sichuan pepper is meant to have.
Cooking With Sichuan Pepper
Use whole Sichuan peppercorns as called for in recipes, usually to flavor the cooking oil. In some recipes it’s chopped up roughly with other ingredients as an ingredient or garnish. But mostly, you’ll use it ground into a powder. First, you lightly toast the peppercorns in a dry skillet until very fragrant. Then grind in a spice or coffee grinder. I usually sift the powder, since some bits of the husk don’t break down well. Like any ground spice, it will lose its punch before long, so don’t store too long. Store extra Sichuan peppercorn in the freezer.