Sichuan peppercorn (花椒, aka Szechuan peppercorn or Chinese peppercorn) is one of the most important spices used in the Chinese kitchen. It has an unusual aroma and creates a unique sensation in your mouth.
“According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, they are not simply pungent; “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).” —Wikipedia
That’s why Chinese from previous generations used Sichuan peppercorn as a remedy to relieve toothache. Put a few of them on the offending tooth, then bite and hold. After a while, you won’t feel any toothache but an overwhelming numbing sensation (I can’t tell you which is less unpleasant. Have a try if you are curious!).
As its name suggests, Sichuan peppercorn is a key spice for Sichuan (a province in southwest China) cuisine. It often pairs with chilli, creating a flavour combination called Mala (麻辣), meaning numbing and spicy. Just like hot chilli, Sichuan peppercorn is an acquired taste. Some people are put off at first. However, it’s addictive once you become accustomed to it. Many popular dishes, such as Mapo tofu, Dan Dan noodles, Kung Pao chicken, Chongqing hotpot and Mouth-watering chicken, are all based on Mala seasoning. In fact, Sichuan peppercorns are widely used by cooks from other regions of China as well.
Sichuan peppercorns are used in two forms: whole for stir-frying, braising, hotpot; ground for salad dressing, sauce, dumpling seasoning, marinating, etc. It’s also used in Chinese five-spice powder. Just like black pepper, freshly ground Sichuan peppercorn tastes much better than shop-bought powder ones. However, unlike grinding black pepper, Sichuan peppercorn needs to be toasted first, then ground in a mortar or a spice grinder.
As shown in the images, Sichuan peppercorn has a reddish colour and similar to black pepper in size, but we only use the husks. It’s available in mainstream British supermarkets and shops specialised in Asian food. Avoid purchasing peppercorns which are brownish or contain too much black seeds (They should be removed from the husks).