When it comes to Sichuan cuisine, the sheer range of flavors, diversity of delicious dishes, and combination of boldness and sophistication can’t be overstated. To be sure, many of the dishes are commonly quite spicy, but there’s so much more than that. With ancient roots and a vast array of ingredients and methods, the Sichuan menu is nearly inexhaustible.
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But one ingredient stands out among the others: Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan’s most important and distinctive spice, these “peppercorns” are one pillar of the signature málà (spicy numbing) flavor profile characteristic of some of the cuisine’s most beloved dishes (dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, hot pot, etc.). But what exactly are they?
What Are Sichuan Peppercorns?
Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. They are actually the berries of the prickly ash, a type of mountain-dwelling, thorny shrub that belongs to the citrus family. The small berries are painstakingly harvested and dehydrated in the sun until they open to release the hard black seeds within, after which they resemble small, brittle flowers.
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How Do Sichuan Peppercorns Taste?
Though typically added to spicy dishes, they don’t contribute heat. Instead, they contribute a heady, mouth-watering citrus, pine, and floral aroma as well as a unique tingling or buzzing sensation much like carbonation, or a mild electric current. This sensation is due to a pungent compound called sanshool that acts on receptors that usually respond to touch. According to research conducted by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, the peppercorns don’t actually vibrate our skin, but they send signals to the brain that we interpret as a vibration; some also mistakenly perceive these signals as heat.
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How Do You Use Sichuan Peppercorns?
Like dried beans, all Sichuan peppercorns must be picked through to remove debris. While finding twigs or even thorns isn’t necessarily an indication of poor quality, a too-mild aroma is. The best products will be intensely aromatic of pine and citrus.
After being picked through, they can be processed into a powder in a spice grinder, used whole, or steeped in hot oil to infuse the oil with their flavor. Whole peppercorns will contribute powerful bursts of tingling, aroma, and texture, while the powder or infused oil can be used to add their flavor more judiciously, without adding texture.