The dried berries from a species of prickly ash, Zanthoxylum piperitum, that is native to the south-western Chinese province of Sichuan. The berries are not true pepper, which grows on a vine, but the seed pods of a small deciduous tree.

The tree grow to a modest height of 3 metres, with sharp thorny protrusions on the stem and branches. The foliage resembles small bay leaves, which are dried and used as the Japanese spice, sansho.

Fresh Szechwan pepper berries are bright red in colour, toning down to a dull mahogany when dried. Most of the flavour is contained in the husk of the berry. The black seed is not only nearly flavourless, but is extremely gritty when ground. Try to buy dried Szechwan pepper that has this seed removed, or remove them yourself before using.

The flavour of Szechwan pepper is floral and citrusy, with the pepper comparison not due to direct heat, but the berries unusual mouth numbing property. It is one of the spices used in the Chinese spice blend, five spice powder, along with star anise, cloves, fennel seeds and cassia bark. It is also one of the main flavour components of the world renowned dish, Peking Duck and is often roasted then ground with salt to make a piquant dipping spice that is used to cut the richness of fatty foods.

This amazing spice is also called anise pepper, sichuan pepper, fagara, Chinese pepper and wild pepper.


Szechwan salt and pepper

This wonderful, tangy condiment is the traditional accompaniment to Chinese crispy skin chicken. The chicken is cut into small serving pieces and served with wedges of lemon and the salt and pepper mix. Simply squeeze lemon juice on the chicken and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Delicious.

It is also used to make many of the Chinese salt and pepper dishes, such as salt and pepper squid and salt and pepper tofu. Simply stir a little of the mix into some plain flour and coat your ingredient of choice before quickly deep frying.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbs sea salt
  • 2 Tbs Szechwan pepper, seeds removed

Method

Combine the salt and pepper in a dry frying pan and place over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mixture smells fragrant. Do not burn. Transfer to a mortar and pestle, or electric spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container, but use within a fortnight, as the freshly floral pepper flavour dissipates rather rapidly.


Interestingly, yclept informs me that this spice is currently (June 2005) a prohibited import into the United States, because of fears that it could transmit citrus canker.

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