I was sitting outdoors in the second row of several rows of long wooden tables. The humidity and summer heat were palpable. The meal had just arrived in tightly wrapped aluminum foil on a plastic plate. Cautiously, I opened the foil to release the aroma of cumin and lamb, a combination I had not expected to find in China. I had been misinformed about Chinese cuisine, assuming that the menu of the typical Chinese restaurant in the U.S. represented the whole of a country’s cuisine. It was here, in Xian in 2005, that I discovered my adventure in Chinese dining was just beginning.
As I started to enjoy the cumin and lamb, I noticed a new sensation I had never experienced before. I was used to spicy food, but this was different. My mouth and tongue were tingling. I felt numbness at the edge of my lower lip, spreading to my tongue. Luckily, I was not having an allergic reaction; the tingling was caused by a key ingredient in my meal – the Szechuan peppercorn (also referred to as Sichuan peppercorn). The sensation in and around my mouth was intensifying my food experience in every way, including highlighting the lime-y, slightly sour flavor of the peppercorn, and the heat of the chilis. This was the first time I had ever had this sorcerer, Szechuan peppercorn, and I was hooked.
What was this exceptional little nugget, referred to locally as hua jiao, or “flower pepper?” Was it a “new world” chili pepper or related to the black pepper native to India? Neither, as it turns out. The Szechuan peppercorn is a berry in the citrus family that is cultivated from the Chinese prickly-ash shrub. The dried red berry, whose husks are used in cooking, is thought to resemble a flower, hence the name hua jiao. The tingling sensation, called “ma” is not hot; the heat, or “la,” comes from chilis. If you want heat and tingling, ask for “ma la.” While found and used in other places (like in Xian where I tasted it), Szechuan peppercorn is indigenous to the Sichuan province of China.
Why do your lips tingle? Apparently, a molecule in the peppercorn reacts with receptors in your cells, causing the numbing sensation. In a scientific study, subjects measured the vibrations from Szechuan peppercorns at 50 hertz. Wow, that sounds like a lot!
“Where was I going to find the Szechuan peppercorn again?,” I wondered. Initially, finding the Szechuan peppercorn proved elusive. At a market in Hong Kong, I was improperly directed to star anise. At another market in China, I learned that the spice was banned from export to the United States since 1968 due to a bacterium that affected citrus plants. No wonder I had never had it before! Luckily, the ban was lifted in 2005.
The hunt to re-experience the Szechuan peppercorn soon became simpler. The first restaurant I discovered in the U.S. that featured Szechuan peppercorn was Little Pepper, now located in College Point, NY, but originally in Flushing, Queens. Over the last 5-10 years, more restaurants have opened that include Szechuan peppercorns in their dishes.
Clearly, Sichuan cuisine featuring Szechuan peppercorns is alive and well in Connecticut with several restaurants opening in Fairfield County in the last year. Joanna Yen, one of the owners of Ginkgo Sichuan Cuisine in Fairfield, CT, told me that her restaurant uses 10 pounds of Szechuan peppercorns per week! And this is just one of several area restaurants. That’s a lot of ma!
What to order? If this is your first foray into Szechuan peppercorns, the classic dish is Dan Dan Noodles (spicy ground pork and noodles). However, my favorite Szechuan peppercorn dishes are: Chengdu dumplings and Spicy Tea Tree Mushrooms with Beef Tenderloin at Ginkgo Sichuan Cuisine; Chong Qing Chicken at Shu Restaurant, and Dry Fry Beef from Enchanted Szechuan.
Apprehensive about whether the lip tingling is for you? If you want to sample the taste of the Szechuan peppercorn, but don’t want a tingling adventure for your lips, talk to your server. Some menu items, most often including seafood, use the green peppercorn version, which has different properties than the tingling red version. One example is the Lobster and Scallop Cooked in Hot Chili Pot at Ginkgo Sichuan Cuisine. If you have never experienced Szechuan peppercorns, I urge you to give it a try and share your comments here. It may change your outlook on Chinese cuisine and break you out of the kung pao chicken or chicken with broccoli rut!
Some nearby restaurants that serve Szechuan peppercorns:
- Ginkgo Sichuan Cuisine, Fairfield, CT
- Shu Restaurant, Fairfield, CT
- Enchanted Szechuan, Norwalk, CT
- Lao Sze Chuan, Millford, CT
Where else can you find the Szechuan peppercorn?
Chinese 5-spice powder – the peppercorn is one of the 5 spices along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and star anise.
You can purchase Szechuan peppercorns at the Oriental Food Market & Deli in Norwalk, CT
Please let me know what you think about the Szechuan peppercorn. Share my post or leave a reply below!