My Precious

Sichuan Peppercorns. Notice the tiny black seeds which are very gritty and the presence of some twiggy bits which are not really edible.

No, it is not a ring.

(Though, I have to say, my jade and gold wedding ring rocks most bodaciously.)

My most best beloved flavor, my precious, is my hoard of Sichuan peppercorns.

Xanthoxylum piperitum.

Fagara. Hua jiao. Ma lar. Sansho.

Called by many names across Asia, the spice known to me as Sichuan peppercorns are the mature fruit of a medium sized shrub called colloquially “prickly ash” or “mountain ash.” The fruits come in the form of a pericarp, which is the mature ovary wall which contains the seeds of the plant. The seeds are said by some to be bitter, however, this has not been my experience. On the other hand, their texture is less than stellar, and so if you can remove them before using the spice, particularly when it is to remain whole, then you avoid the rather sand-like grittiness they can impart to a dish.

Often there are little twigs or thorns present in among the pericarps which must be picked out carefully, as they contain no essential oils to speak of and are a choking hazard.

The little fruits range in color from dark brownish red to a bright brick color; I have found that the brighter the color the fresher they seem to be. The aroma is complex: floral with a strong hint of lemon (likely owing to the citronellal terpine found as a constituent of the essential oil) and a black pepper-like overtone. The flavor is equally multi-faceted; it is astringent and biting without being hot in the way of either black pepper or chile, but at the same time, it has a lingering herbal quality that always reminds me of the way a field of rosemary in bloom smells. In addition to the dancing bouquet of flavors and aromas present in the Sichuan peppercorn, eating the spice gives the diner a pleasant tingling or numbness to the lips and tongue that is both cooling and warming at the same time. This is a harmless, transitory effect; after eating, the sensation fades quickly.

Because the prickly ash is a member of the citrus family, and apparently can carry a very virulent disease called citrus canker; for a time in the recent past, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from being imported into the US. Apparently the ban had been in effect for a very long time, but had never been enforced. With devastating losses of Florida citrus crops due to a newer outbreak of the disease, the FDA began enforcing the ban vigorously, and apparently, some retail stores had their stocks forcibly removed and destroyed.

However, within the past few months, the ban has been lifted; it has been found that if the peppercorns are heat treated, any disease-causing organisms that it might carry can be destroyed, without much loss of flavor or aromatic quality.

As soon as I heard about the ban, I ordered about eight ounces of the spice, and managed to store it quite effectively in a way which preserved both flavor and scent. I had been given conflicting advice on how to keep it fresh; one source gave the standard advice to keep the spice in a cool dark place, sealed airtight, while another source insisted that I keep it in a loosely woven basket in a dark cool place in order to allow air circulation.

I went my own way and sealed the pericarps in air-tight double layered ziplock freezer bags from which I removed all the air. Then I bagged them again, so that four layers of plastic protected it from the cold and the light, and tucked them into my freezer. I kept the majority of the peppercorns this way, with only a small supply left out in a small sealed bottle for every day use at any given time, replentishing from the freezer as needed. This arrangement worked wonderfully; I managed to keep the peppercorns fresh and flavorful until the ban was lifted about a year and a half later. I just recently used the last of that batch and they had just begun to lose their characteristic zingy scent.

I have had good luck purchasing Sichuan peppercorns online through the CMC Company.

I heard it through some posts on Chowhound after the ban that CMC had a good supply of pre-ban Sichuan peppercorns left, so I clicked the link and purchased some. At that point, there were none to be found locally. When they came, they were a nice dark russet and very fragrant. I still have a few of them left, but have since bought new ones at the local Chinese market which were redder, and were so aromatic that after just picking up the bag, the scent lingered on my fingertips. Mmm: better than perfume!

I generally feel that if you can get them locally, you should inspect the Sichuan peppercorns carefully; as I noted above, they should be brightly colored, and the scent should penetrate the plastic or cellophane wrapper. I will not buy them in glass or plastic jars, because there is no way to gauge the smell through airtight containers. I have never failed in choosing them by either sticking with a tried and true supplier like CMC or trusting my nose to tell me a good batch from a bag that has been sitting around forgotten and lonely for years on the bottom shelf in the shop.

I seldom use them whole, as I do not like the texture of them, even in braised foods. I have also noticed that they give a sharper, more penetrating flavor when ground. Before grinding them, however, I always toast them in a small cast iron skillet over medium heat. I pour them in a single layer in the bottom of the skillet, and shake it constantly over the burner, though you can also stir them. This keeps the spice from scorching; scorched Sichuan peppercorns have an acrid, bitter pungency which is less than salutary. As soon as the color deepens slightly and the scent suddenly intensifies, they are ready. I pour them into a shallow bowl to cool before grinding them finely.

When I use them in stir fries, I like to do it in two stages; I put half the amount into the oil after it has just heated up, at the same time as I put in the scallions, garlic, ginger and chiles. This flavors the oil and allows the spices to meld together. Then, I add the rest right before serving, in order to preserve the lemony top notes of the spice and to deepen the darker bouquet of the peppercorn-flavored oil.

Since I haven’t had time to stir fry in days, and I am going to pack my wok tomorrow (whimper, whine, sniff) I will not post a recipe of my own featuring my precious. However, I am giving a link to a recipe from Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, which I -have- made in the past and found to be a great way to feature the haunting and addicting flavor of Sichuan peppercorns.


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  1. Ooo.. I think I must get me some of those peppercorns, although there’s not much call for them in Italian dishes.

    I wonder how the change the taste of the dishes that use red pepper flakes?

    Comment by Kate — March 23, 2005 #

  2. Well, Kate, they have no real heat the way red pepper flakes do; the flavor is more analogous to black pepper than to chile. But even so, they are very different yet again from black pepper.

    I just used them in a semi-traditional pot roast that I cooked in the Crockpot. We had it last night and it was really great. I’ll be posting a recipe in the next day or so, along with pictures. As usual, I didn’t just throw stuff together the way that a lot of crockpot recipes say to do, but at the same time, I managed to use up stuff from the freezer, pantry and fridge that were in need of using up.

    Give them a shot–I think that you will really like them. They are nice in sauteed and braised dishes.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 23, 2005 #

  3. Thank you thank you thank you, Barbara!

    This detailed post about choosing and using Sechuan peppercorns is exactly what I was hoping for! (and you are a hero to have typed it twice!!)

    I feel compelled to take a trek to Chinatown and try again.

    I’m going to wait til it isn’t snowing though… will winter NEVER end??


    Comment by ejm — March 23, 2005 #

  4. We love cooking and were thrilled when we were finally able to buy these little gems locally. We’re having fun using them in new dishes we create as well as some szechaun dishes we enjoy. And now that they are readily available, we use them a little more freely.

    I really have enjoyed reading your blog and added you to my list of blog links. Happy blogging!

    Comment by Biscuit Girl — March 24, 2005 #

  5. Elizabeth–you have my sympathy with the snow–this was a snowy winter for us, and though the trees are budding and there are crocus blooming, I fear we will get one more snow, probably just in time to freeze the daffodils.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like snow, but I am ready for spring!

    Hello, Biscuit Girl–I just read your blog today–I think I will be adding it to my links. I see you like Ma Po Tofu–it is always improved by the addition of Sichuan peppercorns! (Not like it needs much improvement anyway–but the peppercorns really send it over the top into the realm of comfort food nirvana!)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 24, 2005 #

  6. The small husk of the X peperitum is full of flavor. In fact, it often has much more flavor than the small black seed.

    This pretty plant grows well in zone 7 (hot, dry summers; cold winters). It doesn’t do so well in seasonless coastal places like Culver City, California.

    My wife and I enjoy your ideas re cooking.

    Comment by ejrand (msn spaces) — August 31, 2005 #

  7. Hello, Ejrand–

    It is amazing to me how many folks come to my blog from search engines, because of this entry.

    No, the seeds really have no flavor–it is the dried husk is where all the essential oils that give it the distinctive fragrance and flavor reside.

    There are some cooks who remove the black seeds because they are gritty and sand-like, and they don’t like the texture they impart to the dish.

    I am not so picky as all that–I just grind it finely in a mortar and pestle. What I do remove are any traces of branches or sticks or thorns from the spice. Those do not help the flavor or texture one bit.

    I am glad you enjoyed reading–I hope you come back.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — September 2, 2005 #

  8. Raised well by my mother’s strict kitchen rules, I am also very fond of the fragrance of Hua-Chiao and often cook with this special spice. However,with all the news about the tainted food and other things imported from China, I am rather concerned about what exactly going on in processing these peppercorns. what’s your thought of this ?

    Comment by Chia-Li Sung — June 30, 2007 #

  9. Raised well by my mother’s strict kitchen rules, I am also very fond of the fragrance of Hua-Chiao and often cook with this special spice. However,with all the news about the tainted food and other things imported from China, I am rather concerned about what exactly going on in processing these peppercorns. what’s your thought of this ?

    Comment by Chia-Li Sung — June 30, 2007 #

  10. Sung, I haven’t worried overmuch about it, honestly. I may be foolish in that, and I may change my mind as other information comes to light, but for now, I am not overly worried.

    Not yet, anyway.

    Comment by Barbara — July 8, 2007 #

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