The U.S. ban on Sichuan peppercorn imports was lifted in 2005 and the spicy numbing pods have been making their rounds in food-centric circles. Yes, you can buy the Asian spice online and even at Whole Foods! Chinese markets have a big supply these days too. The kind that’s typically found is brick-colored and mostly comprised of potent husks occasionally still holding a dark colored seed. The flavor is menthol like. My tongue usually goes numb from the edges to the center.
It’s a strange Asian spice. The first time I tasted Sichuan peppercorn, I thought I was going to die, like someone had slipped me something. When my dad tried some Chinese candy with Sichuan peppercorn (I got them in Chengdu), he was alarmed by the flavor and effect. “What’s going on?!” he said.
But there’s a wide range of Sichuan peppercorns and I’ve been collecting them in my spice drawer and freezer. The spice is used in many parts of Asian, not just Sichuan, which is why there are variations. Here are four that I’ve gathered:
When I was in Chengdu, we saw mostly red ones but occasionally green ones too. I didn’t think to bring back the green ones but I should have because the flavor is so fascinating – like a glorious, refreshing aftershave. The red peppercorns are earthy and zingy while the green ones are piney. I some at the Spice Station in Silverlake (Los Angeles).
I keep both in the freezer but mostly use the red Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao in Mandarin and hoa tieu in Vietnamese, literally “flower pepper”) in my cooking as they are most potent and perfect for the ma la (numbing spicy) requirements of Sichuan. In Chengdu, a family I met seasoned their mapo tofu with mostly Sichuan peppercorn and it was a major spice hit, almost overwhelming. Dou ban jiang (chile bean sauce) combined with hua jiao lends a better balance. If you’re making Tibetan or Nepalese momo dumplings from Asian Dumplings, you need the red ones! (Note: If there are too many brands of Sichuan peppercorns to choose from at the Chinese market, buy the package that’s priced higher as it’s likely to mean better quality.)
The green peppercorns are elegant in flavor, and I haven’t experimented much with using them. Frankly, I like to just chew on them as a breath freshener of sorts. They’d be great toasted and ground, sprinkled on food as a garnish. I suppose that if the strength of the red ones are not to your liking, you could try the green ones as a substitute.
Japanese and Korean Pepper
The green Sichuan peppercorns are like a pepped up version of Japanese sansho (sansyo as spelled on the label below). Sansho has a lemony tang instead of spicy numbing characteristics. I love the delicate zip of sansho in Japanese miso-glazed tofu (tofu dengaku) and simmered tofu (yu dofu). It’s great with those two Japanese classic tofu dishes, as well as udon and soba noodles.
I had no idea what Korean cooks used in terms of these peppercorns. Perusing a Korean market resulted in nothing so I asked my friend Yun Ho to bring some with him from Seoul. Here they are – they look like large black mustard seeds. Yun Ho was perplexed about my curiosity with the little spice but I wanted to taste some. Well, they have little flavor. There’s a slight perfume but it’s extremely subtle. I’m not terribly fond of them but I am appreciative that I got my hands on some.
Where to buy peppercorns? The Korean ones seem to be the hardest to find. Spice shops carry the green Sichuan peppercorn and maybe someday, so will Chinese markets. The red ones are most commonly found. Japanese sansho seem to be sold at mostly Asian markets. I’m sure you can get this stuff online!
Cooking with Sichuan Peppercorns
If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, keep an eye out for my story in the “Off Duty” section on March 16, 2013. "Lust for Spice" is up at WSJ but they may charge you for accessing the story. (Sorry!)
Otherwise, check Asian Tofu and Asian Dumplings for recipes. Here are some on VWK to tinker with: