Szechuan (or Sichuan) pepper is a unique spice that features prominently in Chinese Sichuan cuisine.
What is it?
Despite the name, the Szechuan pepper is not at all spicy, nor is it related to other species of peppercorns in any way. Szechuan pepper is the dried husks that envelop the seeds of the prickly ash shrub. The plant grows in abundance throughout the Asian continent and is in the same family as various citrus plants. Only the reddish husk is used, the seeds themselves are bitter and tough and usually discarded.
Szechuan pepper has a slightly bitter citrus flavor, but probably the most notable aspect of this spice is the way it numbs the mouth when consumed. As a result of this bizarre sensation, consuming food seasoned with Szechuan is a unique experience. The cause of the numbness is due to the presence of hydroxy-alpha sanshool. Consuming this chemical causes the areas around the lips and the mouth to feel as though they are vibrating rapidly which creates a numbing, tingly sensation. The numbness is brief and only lasts for a few minutes after consuming hydroxy-alpha sanshool.
What is it used for?
Szechuan pepper is used prominently in Sichuan cuisine from the Southwestern regions of China. It’s often used in combination with actual chilis to create a sensation called málà, or numb-spiciness.
Szechuan pepper is one of the ingredients in Chinese Five Spice and is used in a number of quintessential Sichuan dishes such as Chongqing hot pot, Kung Pao Chicken, and Dandan noodles.