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?!”
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:
Red and green Sichuan
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
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
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
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
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: