Sichuan pepper, like star anise, was almost unheard of in Europe a decade ago but is now an indispensible part of many kitchen spice cupboards.
Sichuan pepper tree
Sichuan peppers ripening
Ripe Sichuan peppers
|Species:||Zanthoxylum piperitum, z. simulans, z. rhetsa, z. bungeanum, etc.|
Central Asia, Eastern Asia or South-East Asia.
The term "Sichuan pepper" refers to a spice obtained from a group of closely related plants of genus zanthoxylum. In Asia, most representatives of this genus are found in the Himalayas, Central, Southern, South-East and Eastern Asia. American and African zanthoxylum species are not put to culinary use. The most important species are: z. piperitum (Central and Eastern China, Japan, Korea), z. simulans (China, Taiwan), z. bungeanum (China), z. schinifolium (China, Korea), z. nitidum (China, South-East Asia), z. rhetsa (North India, South-East Asia), z. armatum (Himalayas, South-East Asia, Eastern Asia), z. avicennae (China, South-East Asia, Indonesia) and z. acanthopodium (eastern Himalayas, China, South-East Asia, Sumatra). All these species have a place in local cuisines and can be used interchangeably (except z. schinifolium).
Dried fruits. The aroma and (if present) the pungency reside in the brown fruit wall (pericarp) rather than in the deep black seeds, which are usually omitted due their unpleasant, gritty texture. The Korean species z. schinifolium has aromatic seeds which are the preferred part of the fruit, although the pericarp can also be used as the flavours are the same. The spice as sold commercially often contains significant amounts of stem material (mostly the tough, pointed thorns) which should be removed before use. In Japan, young leaves of the Sichuan pepper tree (kinome or konome) are used fresh, both as a flavouring and as a decoration.
Rutaceae (citrus family).
The dried fruits of Sichuan pepper and its relatives have an aromatic odour that (for most species) is described as lemon-like, with more or less pronounced warm and woody overtones. Fruits of some species have other characteristics, e.g. z. alatum is spicy and both z. avicennae and z. schinifolium have an anise aroma. The taste of most species is pungent and biting and may take some time to develop in the mouth before eventually producing a numb, almost anaesthetic feeling on the tongue. Z. schinifolium is an exception because it has relatively little pungency. Sichuan pepper z. piperitum leaves have a fresh flavour, somewhat in-between the flavours of mint and lime.
For the etymology of "pepper", see pepper, black, white, green and red. Genus name zanthoxylum is a false modification of Greek xanthon xylon, "yellow wood", cf. German gelbholzbaum "yellow-wood tree" and Polish pieprz żółtodrzew "yellow-tree pepper" (from zółty "yellow" and drzewo "tree").
Botanical species names are derived either by local names such as rhetsa and sansho or are of Latin or Greek origin, e.g. piperitus from piper "pepper" because of the peppery taste, simulans "imitating" from simulare "imitate" from the similarity to other species, alatus "winged" for the shape of the leaves, armatus "armed", from arma "weapon" for the thorns, acanthopodius "thistle-footed" from akantha "thistle" or "thorn" and pous "foot" and schinifolius because the foliage resembles that of Peruvian pink pepper, schinus molle.
The English name "prickly ash" refers to the numerous thorns and to the pinnate leaves, which very much resemble those of ash, fraxinus excelsior. English "ash" goes back to the Indo-European name of the tree os and is found in many Indo-European tongues (Old English aesc, German esche, Old Norse askr, Lithuanian uosis, Armenian hatseni, Russian yasen).
The North American species, z. americanum, is known as "toothache tree", due to the anaesthetic power of its alkamide constituents appreciated when the wood of young branches is chewed.
The Chinese name of Sichuan pepper is jiao and to distinguish from other hot spices this is often expanded to shan jiao "mountain pepper", hua jiao "flower pepper" or qin jiao "Chinese pepper". Loan translations of these Chinese names are sometimes used in European languages, e.g. Hungarian virágbors "flower pepper" or German bergpfeffer "mountain pepper".
The Chinese name of Sichuan pepper is sometimes given as fagara, but that term actually denotes a related genus.
Similarly to English, in which the word "pepper" denotes a variety of pungent spices, Chinese often forms compound names with the jiao element, e.g. chilli is la jiao "hot Sichuan pepper", long pepper is chang jiao "long Sichuan pepper" and paprika is tian jiao "sweet Sichuan pepper". The name hu jiao "wild pepper", "foreign pepper" or "barbarian's pepper" usually means black pepper but can also be applied to Sichuan pepper.
Chinese shan jiao is also the source of Korean sancho, but this name refers to a related spice with completely different flavour, the spice corresponding to Chinese jiao being known in Korean as chopi. Similarly, Japanese sanshō is adapted from Chinese shan jiao 2mountain pepper" and is even spelt alike in Chinese and Japanese if the Kanji writing system is employed.
Several species of Sichuan pepper are distributed across Asia, but are not used as spice throughout the region. Sichuan pepper is most important in the cuisines of Central China and Japan, but related species are also known in parts of India, the whole Himalaya region and in parts of South-East Asia.
In China, the spice jiao "Sichuan pepper" is obtained from several local species of zanthoxylum and hence the quality varies regionally. Z. piperitum may be the canonical source of Sichuan pepper, but z. bungeanum, z. simulans, z. planispinum and Z. armatum are more commonly used, with z. bungeanum the most valued of these and others are considered inferior. Chinese Sichuan pepper is part of Chinese five spice, most characteristic of Sichuan cuisine.
The characteristic "biting" or "numbing" taste of Sichuan pepper makes it an indispensable spice for Sichuan cookery which, if omitted or substituted by black pepper, makes dishes appear flat or lifeless to any Chinese gourmet. In Chinese culinary theory this type of pungency has its own name, ma, to make a clear distinction from the pungency of other hot spices, la.
Sichuan pepper is often used as a condiment and a chilli-laden Sichuan stew covered with a thick layer of freshly ground Sichuan pepper is an extraordinary experience.
In Chinese cooking, Sichuan pepper is often used in the form of flavoured salt (jiao yan or hua jiao yan), especially as a condiment. To prepare this typical Sichuan flavouring, coarse salt and dried Sichuan pepper are toasted together until they begin to smoke, then (after cooling) ground to a coarse powder.
A similar usage is found in Japan, where the spice sansho is produced from the species z. piperitum. Shichimi tōgarashi is composed of hot red chillies, Sichuan pepper, tangerine or orange peel and small amounts of black and white sesame seed, poppy seed and sea weed, ground together and used as a condiment which is sprinkled over noodle soups and hotpots.
Korean cuisine is probably the only one in the world that utilises two different zanthoxylum species. Chopi is exactly the same species as Japanese sansho and very similar to Chinese jiao and is used for a wide variety of meat, fish and vegetables. Sancho, on the other hand, derives from the related species z. schinifolium and is a uniquely Korean flavouring wholly distinct from Japanese sansho. It has a mild, aromatic flavour somewhat in-between that of Thai horapha basil and star anise. The ground seeds often flavour pickles and hot sauces.
In India, cooks sometimes use another relative of Sichuan pepper with slightly larger capsules, z. rhetsa or z. limonella), with usage mostly restricted to the West coast (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa), where it is used for fish dishes. In contrast to the conventional Indian cooking habits, it is normally not combined with other spices as its flavour is considered delicate and easily lost if mixed.
Sichuan pepper is one of the few spices important for the cuisines of Himalayan peoples, in particular for Tibetan and Bhutani cuisine. Because of the unique climate, few spices can be grown in Tibet and flavourings of animal origin are generally used, especially various types of cheese. The national dish of Tibet and Nepal is a stuffed pasta called momo, the most popular version of which, sha momo, uses a stuffing of ground beef or yak flavoured with Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger and onion.
In Nepali cooking, a local species of Sichuan pepper z. armatum or z. alatum is used as a spice. The near-black capsules are significantly more pungent than the Chinese ones, with a strong, pervasive and spicy scent more reminiscent of rose and Chinese cinnamon than lemon, although lacking in sweetness. Nepali Sichuan pepper is used for curries and pickles and is one of the most frequently used spices in the cuisine of Nepal.
Yet another type of Sichuan pepper grows wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where it is used as a spice by a few ethnic groups. In Indonesian cookbooks, this spice is sometimes termed "Indonesian lemon pepper", which should not be confused with the lemon-flavoured black pepper found in Western supermarkets. The spice, in Indonesia known as andaliman, is less pungent than other types of Sichuan pepper and has a more intensive lime fragrance, similar to the Japanese species. It could perhaps be substituted by a mixture of Chinese or Japanese Sichuan pepper plus some fresh lemon grass or better lemon myrtle leaves.
Indonesian Sichuan pepper is most characteristic of the cuisine of the Batak, a people inhabiting a small area in the Northern part of Sumatra. Batak food is hot and spicy. A classic dish is sangsang, pieces of pork meat and viscera stewed in a thick, spicy sauce containing pig's blood.
Import of Sichuan pepper to the US has been banned in order to prevent damage to the indigenous citrus fruit industry through spread of citrus canker, caused by bacterium xanthomonas axonopodis pv. citri.