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I Spice: Sichuan peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns. (Monica Bhide)

Are you selling your house? Want it to smell magnificent when buyers walk in? Forget the cinnamon. Just roast some Sichuan peppercorns for a few minutes, and your house will smell wonderfully lemony. These vibrant peppercorns are not shy with their aroma or taste. While they are native to the Sichuan province in China and a staple ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, they also play a part in Bhutanese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan cuisine.

Recipe Included

They are not related to black, green, white or red peppercorns, which all come from the same plant (piper nigrum) that is native to India. “Authentic Sichuan cuisine uses prolific amounts of hwa-chou (Sichuan peppercorns),” Stuart Chang Berman, author of "The Potsticker Chronicles" (Wiley, 2004), posted on my Facebook page, adding that when they are fresh, they are so powerful at numbing the tongue, he can understand why they were used as a local anesthetic.

I had the chance to talk with Dara Bunjon, food writer for and creator of the blog Dining Dish, about her love for these tiny brown wonders. “Sichuan peppercorns have a citrus- and camphor-like flavor and a slight numbing effect on the tongue,” she says. Bunjon advises that you only use the shells of the peppercorns and throw the seeds away. Of course, like the rest of us Sichuan pepper lovers, she recalls the recent ban on these peppercorns. “The peppercorns are part of the prickly ash bush and were banned in the U.S. for a number of years because of the threat of bringing in a fruit canker. The ban has been lifted. Even during the ban, I had a stockpile in my cupboard,” she says.

Sichuan Peppercorn Salt. (Monica Bhide)

A little of the spice goes a long way. Typically, the best way to use this spice is to toast it in a medium-hot dry skillet until fragrant. Allow it to cool, then grind it.

I know you are all probably getting tired of me and the folks I interview saying the same thing over and over about storing spices, but it is worth repeating as it will help the spices keep their flavor longer. “I have to laugh at ads and movies that have spices on top of the stove,” says Bunjon adding that we should store spices in a dark place away from any heat source.

Bunjon makes her own Chinese five-spice powder and suggests using it in these ways:

* Add a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon each of it and grated orange zest to a brownie mix.

* Add equal amounts of salt and sugar to five-spice powder. Rub the mixture on poultry before roasting. This is exceptional on duck.

Cristina Potter, who writes the blog Mexico Cooks!, shared some lovely words on the spice: “The lip-tingling, tongue-numbing, heat-enhancing Sichuan peppercorn adds to the 'tsien' of Sichuan cooking -- that flavor that is more than the combination of flavors in a dish -- and makes your mouth leap for joy,” she wrote me. Her favorite way to use the spice she says are in shredded beef with green beans, Sichuan chicken with dried tangerine peels and mapo tofu. “None of them is 'right' without this tiny fruit. Finely ground, it's the key to any dish that calls for it,” she adds.

Chicago chef Joshua Linton told me he used the spice to prepare a spicy, spunky cucumber or celery pickle. Yes, friends, I am on your side and got that recipe for you ASAP! (Keep reading.) It tastes as divine as it sounds.

I also have been cooking my way through Jaden Hair’s "Steamy Kitchen Cookbook," which has a fantastic, simple recipe for Sichuan Peppercorn Salt. “It is wonderful on popcorn,” she told me. And, might I add, on French fries as well.

Sichuan Cucumber. (Monica Bhide)

Vivian Boroff, author of the blog, wrote to tell me that she loves these peppercorns and uses them in many ways. She shared three tongue-tingling applications:

* Her favorite way to use them is to prepare her own Chinese five-spice powder, coat chicken wings liberally with the seasoning, and roast them at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until the chicken is brown and cooked through. (I was lucky enough to get her recipe for this spice blend, too.)

* She toasts, cools and grinds the peppercorns, then stores them in the freezer so she always has some ready to add to curries and stir-fries.

* She seasons steamed vegetables with a little sea salt and some of the ground toasted pepper. It wakes up the flavor of vegetables so nicely, she says.

To buy Sichuan peppercorns, try your local Asian store or gourmet shop or order from Penzeys, or The Spice House. If you have any spice vendors at your local farmers’ market, check with them as well. “In Baltimore, Mick the Pirate sells them at the Waverly Market,” says Bunjon.

I have to admit the best description that I have read of these delicious little brown wonders was an in article written by one of my favorite writers, Seattle resident Rebekah Denn: “Descriptions of Sichuan peppercorns could apply to a drug as easily as a spice.”

I rest my case.

-- Monica Bhide

Sichuan Cucumber
2 to 4 servings

Adapted from chef Joshua Linton (

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
7 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon chili oil
8 ounces small unpeeled cucumbers, cut into thin slices (may substitute trimmed celery cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch slices)

Combine the Sichuan peppercorns, salt, sugar, vinegar and chili oil in a small bowl.

Whisk until the salt and sugar dissolve.

Place the cucumber slices in a nonreactive bowl, then pour the peppercorn mixture over, making sure to coat evenly. Cover and marinate at least 1 hour before serving.

Per serving (based on 4): 14 calories, 0 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 578 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  December 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, Sichuan peppercorns, recipes  
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I just tried to make MaPo ToFu - a traditional Sichuan dish that requires Sichuan peppercorns. I went to three different Asian markets - Bangkok 54 Oriental Food Market in Arlington, H Mart in Falls Church and Great Wall Supermarket also in Falls Church - and none of them had them! If you find them here locally in the DC area, please post!!

Posted by: emilyglaserross | December 4, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Try Penzey's on route 7 in Falls Church. They had them when I was there this summer.

Posted by: lgdc | December 4, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Back a few years, just before the USDA decided to enforce the restriction on these, I picked up a couple of big bags - amazingly cheap in the Asian markets - and stashed them in jars in the freezer.

Interestingly, DURING the enforcement, my Chinese friends told me they still could be had, but when I (blue eyes, white hair) went in and asked for them, it was "not HERE!"

I recently tasted the "approved" ones, and compared them with the few "pre-ban" samples I had left; and the older ones seem to have more zip. I don't know if this is just a sample-to-sample variation, or if the treatment - which I believe involves heating them - degrades the taste.

Well, ANY is better than NONE, I guess. (And so goes another archaic flavor down the drain.)

Posted by: heinpe | December 4, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

thanks for your comments. I purchased mine on Amazon but I am told that Penzey's in Falls Church has them.

Posted by: mbhide | December 4, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I was about to suggest Penzey's and was beat to it twice! I might drop by tomorrow after hitting the nearby farmers market.

Incidentally, I have a small pet peeve about storing spices. A great way to keep them away from light would be store them in brown bottles, instead of clear ones. Now if someone would stock these regularly.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 4, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

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