Sichuan peppercorns are actually the spicy "outer peel" of berries belonging to the "prickly ash" family. Popularly known as huajiao, these sharp, pungent yet flavorful, rusty-red "peppercorn-like" coverings are one of the top ingredients used in "Chinese five-spice" powder.
Scientific name: Zanthoxylum simulans.
|Raw green szechuan peppercorn berries.
Photo courtesy: Prince Roy
Prickly-ash tree is a citrus family, flowering plant native to the mountainous Szechuan region of China. It is a small tree with numerous short spines that arise on both the stems and leaf petioles and large knobs on the branches as in lemon plant. During winter, flowers appear in slender cymes which subsequently develop into tiny reddish-brown berries by the end of spring. Once the berry ripe, it split-open to release round, black seeds from inside. What remains after seeding is the outer coat (husk) which is gathered and employed as "szechuan peppercorn spice", whereas their seeds discarded.
|Close-up view. Note for rust red husks of peppercorns which used as a spice.|
Sichuan peppercorns are different from black peppercorns, which are native to Indian subcontinent, in plant characteristics, aroma and hotness. Sichuan peppers feature anise like flavor with slight tangy taste and produce less pronounced pungency than black peppercorns.
One of the popular ingredients of East Asian cooking, the peppers are indeed one of the richest sources of essential oils, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Unlike other pepper verities, Sichuan pepper contains unique essential oils, which gives them special citrus-flavor with biting pungent sense. Their aromatic flavor comes to them from terpenes such as ß-myrcene, limonene, geraniol, linalool, cineol, citronellal, and dipentene; whereas, their hotness character is due to certain alkamides embedded in their outer shell.
Like black peppercorns, szechuan peppers too aid in the digestion power through increasing gastro-intestinal juice and enzymes secretion inside the gut.
Szechuan peppers are also good source of vitamins such as vitamin-A, carotenes, pyridoxine, and thiamin and minerals like copper, potassium, iron, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
Native North Americans use ground bark of Szechuan plant as a remedy for toothache.
Like in anise, these peppercorns too found application in traditional medicines as stomachic, anti-septic, anti-spasmodic, carminative, digestive, expectorant, stimulant and tonic. (Medical disclaimer).
Sichuan peppercorns can be available year around. You may find whole or ground peppers in jars, and in air-seal packets, especially in Chinese spice stores. Buy whole peppers (husk) instead of powder as you may need to use whole peppers in stews.
Peppercorns can be stored at room temperature for several months and can be milled using a hand mill, or pestle and mortar or in coffee grinder as and when required. Powdered pepper should be stored inside the refrigerator in airtight containers.
Sichuan peppercorns commonly feature in Chinese, Tibetan, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese and Nepalese cooking. In mainland China, it is one of the main ingredients of five-spice mixtures along with star anise, fennel seeds, clove, and cassia bark (cinnamon). As in other spices like coriander seeds, their flavor can be enhanced by gently roasting under low heat which then added in stir-fries. In case of stews and soups, whole peppercorns wrapped inside a cheese cloth are dipped until cooking is done, which is then removed just before serving.
Here are some preparation tips:
|Kung po chicken! A szechuan style chicken recipe.|
Sichuan peppercorns are one of the regular spice items appearing in Sichuan cuisine. Some of the popular preparations use these peppers are kung pao chicken, wok-fried chicken, mapo doufu, “hot pot” dish, etc.
The spice also features in traditional Tibetan cuisine to flavor rice-cake dumplings.
Sichuan pepper oil is added in noodles, chowmein, and in vegetable, fish, prawns stir-fries.
In Japan, the leaves of Zanthoxylum piperitum (shansho) are dried, ground and added to dishes.
Although sichuan peppers are not as hot as chili, or black peppercorns, yet they may cause stomach upset, irritation, somach ulcers, etc, especially in those who have peptic ulcer disease. Therefore, recipes prepared with this pepper should be avoided in individuals with stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis conditions. (Medical disclaimer).
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