Sichuan peppercorns: "There's a war in my mouth."


The Evil Mad Scientists are rightfully fascinated with Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan peppercorns, oh yeah! Raven of Made with Molecules after eating them wrote, "There's a war in my mouth." They create a riot of numbing and tingling sensations, particularly if you can get relatively fresh ones (i.e. not stale from sitting around in a Whole Foods bulk bin). Raven links to an abstract about the particular anesthetic-sensitive potassium channels inhibited by hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, one of the components of sichuan peppercorns that make them so exciting.
Sichuan peppercorns


  1. I thought imports had been banned? They’re coming in again?!? Off to the local Asian market tomorrow.

  2. Yep. They’re available again starting about three years ago. Prior to that they’d been banned for import to the US due to the trees hosting a virus that can be lethal to citrus trees (they’re in the same family, the Rutaceae). The Chinese have worked to rid their orchards of the virus, and were certified as free of it in 2005 or 2006, if I remember correctly.

    If you think the weird sensation of dried ripe ones is intense, you should try fresh green ones. They’re many, many times stronger than even the freshest ripe ones. It’s like that sensation you get testing a nine volt battery with your tongue, combined with weird waves of numbness, hyper-saltiness, buzzing, and all kinds of other things fighting for control of your taste buds. Plus, the main sensation goes on for many minutes and leaves you with weird aftershocks that go on for at least an hour. And that’s just from nibbling on one green Szechuan peppercorn. They’re truly amazing.

    Unfortunately, the only place I’ve seen fresh green ones is in China.

  3. Hua jiao yan is a great condiment. Here’s how you make it:

    Put roughly equal parts salt and Sichuan pepper in a dry (no oil) pan and put the heat to it. You can use a fairly high heat if you’re paying attention or gentle heat if your attention is divided with other cooking. Once the pan gets warm, keep the mixture moving until the salt looks pinkish-tan or the Sichuan pepper begins smoking lightly, whichever comes first (which depends on the low/high heat choice from before, but won’t greatly effect the final result). Grind the mixture while it’s still warm–preferably in a mortar and pestle.

    The salt will have been coated in the oil released during heating and grinding, creating synergistic magic. Use it like salt and pepper during cooking or on the table. I particularly like it with seafood. It’s all you need to season amazing fried squid.

  4. Great trick. I’ll have to try that.

    I just mix Sichuan peppercorns in with all the other kinds of peppercorns I use in my grinder. It gives you a broader flavor spectrum.

  5. To all NYC foodies:

    Grand Sichuan (St Marks or 9th ave and 24th)have an amazing dish called Gui Zhou Spicy Chicken. It was the first time I had ever tasted the peppercorns and they knocked my socks off! I’ve managed to convert some of my more adventurous friends and co-workers into diehard peppercorn junkies.

  6. They’re a nice background flavor in a lot authentic Sichuan dishes.

    The thing that really stands out to me is that, once I’ve eaten a fair amount, water tastes funny–like metallic/minerally/salty.

  7. There’s a great Sichuan restaurant in my town (actually, it’s the only great restaurant in my town), and it’s gotten my hooked on the Sichuan Peppercorns. They make a great dish of chilled beef tendons in a spicy peppercorn sauce that is amazing. The great thing is that the endorphin rush that you normally get from spicy food seems to last almost an hour after eating it (the “aftershocks” comment above seems about right). I know that the restaurant owner has his family in China mail him specialty ingredients on a weekly basis, so I’ll have to ask if he uses green ones.

  8. Mmm, MaPo Tofu…

    The Japanese relation, sansho, is quite good, too. The fresh young leaves taste like a cross between vanilla and lemon grass with a light tingle. The pods are ground and sprinkled on grilled eel. I’ve grown a sansho plant on my deck for years.

  9. A friend of mine brought some back freshly dried from Sichuan province and let me tell you they’re a near-death experience when they’re fresh… one peppercorn numbs most of the mouth, leaving a pained metallic vaguely black pepper trail in its wake… serious eye-watering adrenalin after a dish spiced with it. Unbelievable.

    Not sure if I liked it or not, but I’ll never forget it.

  10. It’s amazing how many Chinese places make “mala tofu” without this ingredient. That sensation is the “ma” in “mala,” and without it all you have is “la” – the plain old chili-pepper kind of spiciness.

  11. Anonymous:

    They’re more like hot pine needles or juniper than cayenne (I believe they’re actually from an ash tree).

    Really, they just numb your mouth right out like cloves.

    I have also seen it them packaged as “wild pepper”.
    Too bad they were banned in the states; I believe they have always been available here in Canada.

    I believe you’re supposed to remove as many of the black seeds as you can and just use the red seed coats (someone please correct me if I am wrong).

    They are yummy; fabulous for making your own five-spice blend at home (far superior to the commercial stuff).

    Now do a piece on another great spice – black cardamom.

  12. Friends from Chongqing. I’ve had them for several years. I gave them for Christmas last year – to some mystification and much gratitude.

    Good things to have on hand.

  13. I always keep a grinder full of these in my kitchen. Sichuan pepper is perfect on sandwiches, particularly chicken or pork sandwiches, with a little grey salt.

  14. Just got back a month ago from Beijing – took a cooking class ( – awesome and highly recommended) that used these a lot. For western (read: somewhat wimpy) palates, we heated these up in oil (blend of corn, vegetable and peanut oils) and then removed the pepper corns, and then cooked the main ingredients in the pepper-infused oil. Delicious – there’s a numbing sensation, but also a warm and very complex fruity/spicy flavor that comes from these. You can choose to leave the pepper corns in your dish, but be prepared for mayhem on your tongue.

    Back in California, I found them at a local asian food market, and recreated the dishes from the cooking class fairly successfully. Really a very distinctive and wonderful flavor.

  15. Strumpet:

    Members of the genus Zanthoxylum, which the Sichuan peppercorn is in, are often called prickly ash trees, but they’re not true ashes. The true ash trees are members of the genus Fraxinus, which is in the Oleacea, the olive family. Zanthoxylum is in the Rutacea, which is the citrus family. So, they may be called an ash tree by common name, and there is some similarity in appearance, but they’re more closely related to citrus trees than they are to true ash trees.

  16. The ban was instituted because of the possibility that the sichuan would carry citrus canker, which would be detrimental to US citrus crops. The ban was lifted in 2005 on the stipulation that any sichuan imported into the United States would be heated to 70 degrees celsius to kill any canker that might be present.

  17. There is an excellent Chinese Restaurant nearby in Medford, MA called Fuloon that does several authentic Sichuan dishes including a beef dish in a cauldron of hot oily broth packed with poached beef, fistfulls of sichuan peppercorns, and little red chillies.

    To anyone who is not a spice lover the dish can essentially bring on a grand mal seizure. I love it, but the ma la combination of the two types of peppers does numb my face significantly for a 1/2 hour or so and trigger face sweats in the very best way.

    Having read these comments I am itching to try fresh green sichuan peppercorns.

  18. The best way I’ve had Sichuan peppers is in hot pot 火锅. A sea of Sichuan and chili peppers floats in oil where you cook raw food such as pig intestines and lotus root. I lived in Chongqing where this is the semi-official dish. Hot pot restaurants are on every corner. Very tasty and awesome with a group of friends. I doubt health officials in the US would allow it though.

  19. @7 that miracle fruit is fascinating and certainly belongs in some molecular gastronomy kitchen.

    Does any1 have experience with it?

  20. I picked up some of these at Penzey’s a couple years ago. These are different from the “pink” peppercorns you see in the peppercorn blends, aren’t they? I’ve always heard the pick peppercorns are mildly toxic.

  21. The restaurant I used to work at used coarsely ground sichuan peppercorns combined with Maldon sea salt to sprinkle over deep fried squid. Their salt & pepper squid was a HUGE seller – yummo!

  22. Anonymous:


    Because it comes to the table raw?
    Maybe, though one can order tartar and sushi.

    I know we used to have a hot pot soup tureen (like a big bundt pan with a charcoal brazier burning up it’s centre. And we were served a large tray of raw beef and seafood which we threw in and simmered until it was done.

    (it has been about 10 years since I have seen that though, and this is Canada).

    And I have seen chitlins fried up at our table for dim sum – but that was by the serving staff.

    Actually this food talk is reminding me of one of my favourite chinese sauces which I do not know the name of – basically a lot of raw ground ginger and garlic with sliced chives in peanut oil. THey served it up with cold steamed chicken sliced through the bone on hot white rice.


  23. Yeah, you should typically pick out the seeds and stems and use just the seed covering (although is not required, especially when making the flavored oil where they will be filtered off and discarded).

    The hua jiao yan (ground peppers and salt) is very tasty on meats (chicken and shrimp in particular), and I have even started adding to my bread making occasionally. Imparts a nice flavor to a loaf, and the end result isn’t the tongue-numbing… just sort of a distant peppery flavor that is hard to place.

    They are still hard to find, even in the Asian markets (even in southern CA where I live in a predominantly Chinese community). I suspect it is due to importers not bothering with these peppercorns since they need to be ‘certified’ that they were heated in accordance with U.S. law. It probably isn’t worth the added expense for most of them on such a cheap ingredient… supply and demand, the hot pot restaurants probably know where to get them or just order them from China, or maybe just have an ‘antie’ bring them in the luggage. They are very cheap in China.

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