|Literal meaning||"flower pepper"|
Sichuan pepper (Chinese: 花椒; pinyin: huājiāo), also known as Szechuan pepper, Szechwan pepper, Chinese prickly ash, Chinese pepper, Timut pepper and mala pepper, is a spice commonly used in the Sichuan cuisine of China's southwestern Sichuan Province. When eaten it produces a tingling, numbing effect due to the presence of hydroxy-alpha sanshool in the peppercorn. The spice has the effect of transforming other flavors tasted together or shortly after. It is commonly used in Sichuan dishes such as mapo doufu and Chongqing hot pot, and is often added together with chili peppers to create a flavor known as málà (Chinese: 麻辣; "numb-spiciness").
Despite its name, Sichuan pepper is not closely related to either black pepper or chili pepper. It belongs to the global genus Zanthoxylum in the family Rutaceae, which includes citrus and rue. Related species are used in the cuisines of several other countries across Asia.
Species and cultivars
Sichuan peppers have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes in China for centuries. While numerous Zanthoxylum species are called huājiāo (lit. "flower pepper"), the two most commonly found in China are hónghuājiāo (Chinese: 红花椒), or red Sichuan peppercorns, which are harvested from Z. bungeanum, and qīnghuājiāo (Chinese: 青花椒) or májiāo (Chinese: 麻椒), green Sichuan peppercorns, harvested from Z. armatum. Fresh green Sichuan peppercorns are also known as téngjiāo (Chinese: 藤椒). Red Sichuan pepper is typically characterized as stronger-tasting, while green Sichuan pepper is milder but fragrant and has a stronger numbing effect. Over the years Chinese farmers have cultivated multiple strains of these two varieties.
Z. piperitum is harvested in Japan and Korea to produce sanshō (山椒) or chopi (초피), which has numbing properties similar to those of Chinese Sichuan peppercorns. The Korean sancho (산초, 山椒) refers to a different but related species (Z. schinifolium), which is slightly less bitter than chopi.
In Western India, one variant of Sichuan pepper known as teppal in Konkani or tirphal in Marathi (both words mean "three fruits/pods") is harvested from Z. rhetsa. Another variety, Z. armatum, is found throughout the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Bhutan, as well as in Taiwan, Nepal, China, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, and Pakistan, and is known by a variety of regional names including timur (टिमुर) in Nepali and Hindko, yer ma (གཡེར་མ) in Tibetan and thingye in Bhutan.
Sichuan pepper has a citrus-like flavor and induces a tingling numbness, akin to a 50-hertz vibration, in the mouth due to the presence of hydroxy-alpha sanshool. Food historian Harold McGee describes the effect of sanshools thus:
"...they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion."
The term "sichuan pepper" is not related to black pepper, white pepper, or chili peppers. While whole, green, freshly picked sichuan pepper may be used in cooking, the dried sichuan pepper is more commonly used. Once dried, the shiny black seeds inside the husk are discarded (they are hard and tasteless), along with any stems; the husk is what we know as sichuan pepper or peppercorn.
The peppercorn may be used whole or finely ground, as it is in five-spice powder. Ma la sauce (Chinese: 麻辣; pinyin: málà; literally "numbing and spicy"), common in Sichuan cooking, is a combination of Sichuan pepper and chili pepper, and it is a key ingredient in Chongqing hot pot. Sichuan pepper is also occasionally used in pastries such as Jiāo Yán Bǐng. Beijing microbrewery Great Leap Brewing uses Sichuan peppercorns, offset by honey, as a flavouring adjunct in its Honey Ma Blonde.
Sichuan pepper is also available as an oil (Chinese: 花椒油, marketed as either "Sichuan pepper oil", "Bunge prickly ash oil", or "huajiao oil"). Sichuan pepper infused oil can be used in dressing, dipping sauces, or any dish in which the flavor of the peppercorn is desired without the texture of the peppercorns themselves.
Hua jiao yan (simplified Chinese: 花椒盐; traditional Chinese: 花椒鹽; pinyin: huājiāoyán) is a mixture of salt and Sichuan pepper, toasted and browned in a wok, and served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck, and pork dishes.
The leaves of the sichuan pepper tree are also used in soups and fried foods.
Sichuan pepper is an important spice in Nepali, Kashmiri, Tibetan, and Bhutanese cookery of the Himalayas. One Himalayan specialty is the momo, a dumpling stuffed with vegetables, cottage cheese, or minced yak or beef, and flavored with Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger, and onion. In Nepal, the mala flavor is known as timur (टिमुर).
In Konkani cuisine, especially among Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSB), Teppal or Sichuan Pepper is a delicious addition to fish as well as vegetable dishes (Koddel, Gashi, Ambat of different gourds, pulses and other vegetables).
In China, Zanthoxylum bungeanum has traditionally been used as a herbal remedy, listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China and prescribed for ailments as various as abdominal pain, toothache, and eczema. Research has revealed that Z. bungeanum can have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant effects. Pharmacological basis has also been found for the medicinal use of Z. armatum to treat gastrointestinal, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders.
Important aromatic compounds of various Zanthoxylum species include:
- Zanthoxylum fagara (Central & Southern Africa, South America) — alkaloids, coumarins (Phytochemistry, 27, 3933, 1988)
- Zanthoxylum simulans (Taiwan) — Mostly beta-myrcene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, Z-beta-ocimene (J. Agri. & Food Chem., 44, 1096, 1996)
- Zanthoxylum armatum (Nepal) — linalool (50%), limonene, methyl cinnamate, cineole
- Zanthoxylum rhetsa (India) — Sabinene, limonene, pinenes, para-cymene, terpinenes, 4-terpineol, alpha-terpineol. (Zeitschrift f. Lebensmitteluntersuchung und -forschung A, 206, 228, 1998)
- Zanthoxylum piperitum (Japan [leaves]) — citronellal, citronellol, Z-3-hexenal (Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 61, 491, 1997)
- Zanthoxylum acanthopodium (Indonesia) — citronellal, limonene
US import ban
From 1968 to 2005, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned the importation of Sichuan peppercorns because they were found to be capable of carrying citrus canker (as the tree is in the same family, Rutaceae, as the genus Citrus). This bacterial disease, which is very difficult to control, could potentially harm the foliage and fruit of citrus crops in the U.S. It was never an issue of harm in human consumption. The import ban was only loosely enforced until 2002.
As of 2007, the USDA no longer requires dried fruit to be subjected to heat treatment in order to be allowed to enter the US. Taking into account that the peppercorn is normally shipped and used dried, this change effectively means that there is no longer an active import ban on the peppercorns.
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