Szechuan Pepper: A Different Kind Of Heat

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Szechuan pepper is sometimes written as Sichuan pepper. Both spellings refer to the same thing—a spice derived from a tree native to various parts of Asia. These trees are also found in the Americas and in Africa but have not been used in cooking in those places. According to legend, Szechuan peppercorns were once reserved solely for the Chinese emperor.

Despite having the word pepper in its name, Szechuan pepper has no relation to black pepper or to chili peppers; instead, the tree from which it comes is called the prickly ash tree and actually falls into the citrus species. Szechuan peppercorns are the dried berries from these trees. Szechuan berries were actually banned by the US government for many years (1968 to 2005) due to fears that they could spread a disease to citrus trees.

Szechuan pepper flavor profile

Szechuan pepper is aromatic with flavor notes of pine and lavender along with a slight citrus sweetness. Beyond its unique flavor, what makes Szechuan pepper famous is the numbing sensation that it causes. This is different from the heat of chili peppers and of black peppercorns. Research has shown that its effects are actually similar to the effects of subjecting the lips to rapid vibration. It is often paired with chili peppers because some chefs believe that the numbness caused by the Szechuan pepper neutralizes their heat. Neutralizing the heat allows you to enjoy their other flavors.

Health benefits of Szechuan pepper

The health benefits of Szechuan pepper come from compounds like:

  • Terpenes: Both myrcene and limonene are terpenes that are considered beneficial for fighting inflammation and that may help to prevent cancer.
  • Vitamins: Szechuan peppercorns contain both vitamins A and K.
  • Minerals: Szechuan peppercorns are sources of potassium, zinc and selenium.

Szechuan pepper has a long history of being used in traditional Chinese medicine. Below are some of the diseases that you may be able to treat or prevent when you include it in your diet.

  • Poor digestion: Your digestion can be improved by Szechuan pepper since it is known to cause the release of digestive enzymes and can also prevent flatulence.
  • High blood pressure: As a vasodilator, Szechuan peppercorns can help to lower blood pressure and thus the risk of strokes and heart disease.
  • Roundworm infestation: One of the traditional uses of Szechuan peppercorns is in the treatment of the intestinal parasites known as roundworms.

Common uses of Szechuan pepper

The spice is one of the few that can grow in the Himalayas, which makes it essential for the cuisine of Tibet and of Bhutan. It is also a crucial element of the province after which it is named. Dishes from the Szechuan region are widely known to be hotter than dishes from elsewhere in China, partly because of Szechuan pepper and partly because of the liberal use of chili peppers. Szechuan pepper is an especially popular addition to dishes featuring duck and chicken and is often paired with star anise and ginger. It is one of the main spices in most Chinese five-spice blends along with star anise, ginger, and other spices. It is important in Japanese shichimi togarashi as well.

The various Chinese dishes in which Szechuan peppercorns play a prominent role include bang bang chicken and kung pao chicken. It is also an important ingredient in Tibet’s national dish which features yak meat seasoned with Szechuan peppercorns, ginger, and garlic.