Pepper, szechuan

Other Names: Andaliman or intir-intir (Indonesian); aniseed pepper; Chinese pepper; chopi or sancho (Korean); dang cay (Vietnamese); emma (Tibetan); faa jiu or hua chia (Cantonese); fagara pepper; Indonesian lemon pepper; Japanese pepper; ma lar or mak kak (Thai); mullilam or tilfda (Hindi); Nepal pepper; pepe di anis (Spanish); poivre du Sichuan (French); sansho (Japanese); hua jiao (Mandarin); Sichuan pepper; sprice pepper; Szechuan-pfeffer (German); timur (Nepali).

General Description: Szechuan peppercorns are the small dried fruits of a prickly ash tree (Zanthoxylum simulans). Usually reddish brown, the fruits have rough walls that split open, exposing tiny black seeds, a small tough stem, and, often, thorns. The aroma and pungency reside in the pericarp (fruit wall), not in the seeds. Szechuan peppercorns impart a tingly numbness to the mouth that is lingering and somewhat “fizzy.” The aroma is lemonlike with warm and woodsy notes. The peppercorns are lightly toasted and crushed before being added to food, generally at the last moment.

Szechuan pepper is most important in central China and Japan, but related species are known in parts of India, the Himalayas, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. The characteristic “biting” pungency of Szechuan pepper, or ma_, is indispensable for Sichuan (formerly spelled Szechuan) cookery, often in combination with fiery chiles. A local species called yerma (_Z. armatum) is important in Tibetan cookery because it’s one of the few spices that can be grown in the Himalayas.

In Japan, the dried and powdered leaves of sancho (Z. piperitum) flavor noodle dishes and soups, while the fresh leaves, called kinome, flavor vegetables, especially bamboo shoots. The plant’s berries produce shiny black seeds that are traditionally ground in a mortar made from prickly ashwood. This pungent, lemony spice is sprinkled on unagi (broiled eel) and it flavors nanami and shichimi togarashi. Korean sancho (Z. schinifolium) has a mild, aromatic flavor; its aromatic seeds are used for pickles and hot sauces. Several types of Szechuan pepper grow wild in Indonesia; one milder type from Sumatra is called andaliman, or Indonesian lemon pepper.

Purchase and Avoid: It’s best to buy whole Szechuan pepper from an Asian market. If you’re buying the ground spice, purchase it from a high-quality spice dealer. Though previously banned in the U.S. (to prevent the spread of plant canker), heat-treated Szechuan peppercorns may now be legally imported.

Note: Szechuan pepper often contains bits of pointy thorns that can be harmful if swallowed, so be vigilant. The seeds are usually also removed because they have an unpleasant, gritty texture.

Serving Suggestions: Crush 1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns with 1/2 teaspoon each white and black peppercorns and 1/4 teaspoon allspice berries and use to coat steak or pork chops. Season spareribs before cooking with a mixture of Szechuan Roasted Salt and Pepper Mix (recipe above), minced ginger and garlic, and toasted sesame oil.

Food Affinities: Barbecue ribs, duck, garlic, ginger, mushroom, onion, peanut, rice wine, snow peas, soy sauce, star anise.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com