Szechuan peppers is native to the Szechwan province of China. Though they bear some resemblance to black peppercorns, they are not actually of the pepper family, but the dried berry of a tree of the rue family. Several Zanthoxylum species grow throughout the temperate belt of China, Japan, the Himalayas and North America. They all have similarities, being aromatic and used in herbal remedies. Only the pipertium variety of the East is useful for cooking.
In Japan the wood of the prickly ash is used to make mortars and pestles which impart some flavour to the substances being ground. The Japanese also use the wood for tobacco pipes.
Szechuan pepper is still fairly uncommon in the West, so it may be helpful when looking for it to be familiar with some of the other common names and spellings for it: Sichuan pepper, Szechwan pepper and fagara to name a few — see below for others.
Szechuan peppercorns are rust coloured with hair-thin stems and open ends. The dried berries resemble tiny beechnuts measuring 4 – 5 mm in diameter. The rough skin splits open to reveal a brittle black seed, about 3 mm in diameter, however the spice mainly consists of the empty husks. It is available whole or ground.
In Japan the leaves are used as spice — the ground dried leaves are known as sansho and the whole leaves, kinome, are fresh, vacuum-packed or pickled.
Bouquet: the berries are warm and pepperlike. The leaves have a citrus fragrance.
Flavour: the berries are mildly peppery, woodsy and acrid. The leaves are milder more citrus.
Hotness Scale: 4
Preparation and Storage
The berries should be gently roasted to release aromatics before crushing with a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder. If a fine powder is desired, sieve to remove the husks and stalks. Store in airtight containers, out of sunlight.
Cooking with Szechuan Pepper
Originating from the Szechuan province of China, Szechuan pepper is associated with dishes from that region which feature hotter and spicier cooking than the rest of China. Duck and chicken dishes in particular work well with the spice. Hua jiao yen is a mixture of salt and Szechuan pepper, roasted and browned in a wok and served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck and pork dishes. Star anise and ginger are often used with it and figures prominently in Szechuan cuisine.
Szechuan pepper is one of the few spices important for Tibetan and Bhutani cookery of the Himalayas, because few spices can be grown there. The national dish of Tibet are momos, a pasta stuffed with yak and flavoured with Szechuan pepper, garlic, ginger and onion. The noodles are steamed and served dry, together with a fiery chile sauce.
In Japan the dried and powdered leaves of the same species of prickly ash is known as sansho and used to make noodle dishes and soups mildly hot and fragrant. The whole leaves, kinome, are used to flavour vegetables, especially bamboo shoots, and to decorate soups. Szechuan pepper is an ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-flavour seasoning.
Substitute for Szechuan Pepper
Health Benefits of Szechuan Pepper
The berries are carminative and anti-spasmodic. The North American prickly ash is known as the ‘Toothache Tree’ because the powdered bark was used as a toothache remedy and to heal wounds. The bark and berries are stimulative and used as a blood purifier and digestive.
Plant Description and Cultivation
An aromatic shrub or small tree, deciduous, with pinnate leaves. The branches, bark and main stem are covered with spiny thorns. Asiatic varieties have red berries, up to 5 mm in diameter. The American species have black and dark blue berry clusters. The tree grows wild, usually in rich woodlands with moist soils. When cultivated it requires little attention.
Anise Pepper, Chinese Pepper, Fagara, Japan Pepper, Sichuan Pepper, Suterberry, Szechuan pepper, Toothache Tree, Yellow Wood
French: poivre anise
Italian: pepe d’anise
Spanish: pepe di anis
Chinese: chuan-chiao, chun-chiu, shun-tsin, fa-chin, hua-chiao, hua jiao, jiao, ta-liao
Japanese: kinome (fresh leaves), sancho (powdered dried leaves)
Zanthoxylum piperitum Fam: Rutaceae