If you’ve ever had Sichuan food or spicy hot pot, you’ve probably encountered the tingling sensation of Sichuan peppercorns.
Despite the name, Sichuan peppercorns are not related to the more common black and white peppercorns you’ll find in a pepper shaker.
Rather, Sichuan peppercorns are small berries from the prickly ash shrub, and while they are used across China, they are most strongly associated with the food of the southwest in Sichuan Province.
The berries have a thin, delicate husk that splits open to reveal a tiny black seed. The seed’s most distinctive characteristic is its curiously numbing effect on the tongue, a citrusy buzz comparable to the electric current of some power grids.
In Sichuan markets, you’ll find piles of peppercorns for sale, ranging in color from vibrant green to brick red. In Chinese, peppercorns are called huajiao 花椒, or “flower pepper,” for their appearance when dried.
The tingling sensation is comparable to the electric current of some power grids.
There’s a common misconception that the red and green peppercorns are the same berry at different stages of maturity. In fact, their molecular structures are different, as are their numbing quality, aroma, and taste.
“The red pepper is hotter,” says Li Tok-fan, executive chef at the Shangri-La Hotel in Chengdu, “a stronger flavor which works well for hot pot and dishes such as poached Sichuan beef. The green pepper is a bit lighter and goes especially well with seafood.”
As with many other spices, the fragrance and flavor of Sichuan peppercorns become stronger when heated. In Sichuan, peppercorns are often combined with chillies to create the cuisine’s distinct mala 麻辣, or numbingly spicy, flavor.
(Read more: The hottest cocktails made with Sichuan peppers)
Sichuan peppercorns are also used to make five-spice powder and the spicy pepper-salt mixture sometimes served with Chinese roast pork.
But it’s hard to find good peppercorns in the U.S.
One of the biggest frustrations for peppercorn aficionados in the United States was that for a long time, they couldn’t import the best stuff. For years, the most potent peppercorns had to be smuggled into the States.
That’s because until 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned peppercorn imports out of fear that they bore citrus canker, a bacterial disease that could affect the nation’s vast citrus industry.
The ban was later lifted, but only on the condition that the peppercorns were heat-treated to kill the bacteria. This process, however, made the berries less potent and fragrant.
“One of [my suppliers] assured me that he’d heat them for an hour,” recalls Taylor Holliday, a peppercorn importer in Tennessee. “That’s clearly not good for the oil content, so the potency, flavor, aroma, and fragrance are not ideal.”
The requirement was based on the science at the time, which equated the Sichuan pepper canker to the citrus canker. That correlation was debunked in a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, and importers are no longer required to heat-treat their peppercorns.
But exporters in Sichuan continue to do so out of an abundance of caution.
“When I tried to share this good news, they were not convinced.”
“I mean, there was no announcement, no press release,” Holliday says with indignation. “When I tried to share this good news, they were not convinced.”
Another problem is that suppliers tend to save the lowest-quality and least expensive peppercorns for export, resulting in a mix that’s “full of seeds and twigs,” Holliday says.
And as with any spice, Sichuan peppercorns lose their potency over time. The freshest ones are harvested in August, when the berries are in full bloom.
“From my experience, it is, I think, the most fragrant that I have ever experienced,” says Jenny Gao, a chef who imports peppercorns from Hanyuan, a county in Sichuan famous for its potent peppercorns. She takes orders on demand to ensure the spices don’t sit on the shelf for too long.
(Read more: Inside Jenny Gao’s spice rack)
For now, only a few importers like Gao and Holliday are bringing non-heat-treated, fresh Sichuan peppercorns to the States, which means to experience the real deal, a trip to China might be your best bet.
But if you can’t, you can experience the peppercorn harvest firsthand in the latest episode of our series In Season, where we hunt for some of China’s most unique seasonal ingredients. Watch the video here.