Sichuan pepper, or huājiāo （花椒） in Chinese, is one of the most loved, and simultaneously, one of the most hated of Chinese spices. Some people abhor its ‘soapy’ aroma, and pick out the peppercorns from a dish with distaste; others positively seek them out to enjoy their characteristic numbing flavour to the fullest.
Sichuan pepper appears in many of the most famous Sichuanese dishes, and its flavour is perhaps the most characteristic aspect of the region’s cooking – others, such as Hunan and Guizhou, use just as much chilli, but none use huajiao with such a liberal hand as the Sichuanese. It is also worth noting that huajiao’s appearance in Sichuan cuisine far predates that of chillies.
Today, Sichuan pepper is most frequently fried with dried chillies, a method that brings out its smoky tones (for example in Kung Pao Chicken), but it is also dry-fried and ground to a powder (as in Mapo Tofu), and even occasionally used raw (as in Jiao Ma Ji Pian – chicken slices in a Sichuan pepper sauce). Sichuan pepper is also one of the ingredients in the famous (and highly variable) Chinese ‘five-spice’ mixture, and is also used in various other Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Korean and Indonesian.
In spite of its name, Sichuan pepper is in fact related neither to black pepper nor chilli, but is the outer husk of the fruit of the prickly ash tree, Zanthoxylum. This somewhat stunted tree (thorny branches bare in the winter, covered by dark green, pale-edged leaves in the summer), produces its harvest in August: slightly knobbly, dusky pink balls, gathered in busy clusters – a stunning contrast to their surrounding dark leaves.
Qingxi village in Hanyuan County (about 300km south-west of Chengdu) is where the most prized and famous Sichuan pepper is grown. Its history here is long and illustrious; it is mentioned in the foundational Book of Songs, thought to be compiled by Confucius himself, and Qingxi’s Sichuan pepper was for many centuries sent in tribute to the imperial court of China’s emperors.
When I visited Qingxi, only a few weeks before the harvest, the trees were positively dripping with the peppercorns, and their lemony aroma reached me before I was even close enough to touch them. I learnt from villagers that once picked, some of the peppercorns would be used fresh to make huajiao-flavoured oil; the rest would be left to dry in the sun, laid out in bamboo baskets, until the skin has cracked to reveal the shiny black seeds within.
The seeds would then be shaken from the husks and discarded, and the leftover husks are thus ready for use in cooking.
You too can make the arduous journey to buy Sichuan pepper from the very village where it is produced, but for those not quite as huajiao-obsessed as me, just try to buy a brand from Hanyuan County. I also recommend buying Sichuan pepper in pre-sealed packets, not loose, as its flavour diminishes rapidly if not kept in a sealed container. For those not in China, Sichuan pepper can be bought online from specialist suppliers (such as the Cool Chile Company), and for British readers, is available in most supermarkets in the Bart’s spices range.
As mentioned earlier, Sichuan pepper is delicious fried with dried chillies; this method, called qiang in Chinese, can be used in combination with all manner of fresh vegetables – I like it particularly with slithers of round courgette (zucchini). But perhaps the most famous of Sichuanese dishes that uses Sichuan pepper is Mapo Tofu, a recipe for which I’ve adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery and which you can find below.
Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐
- 1 block of tofu
- 3-4 spring onions (scallions)
- Vegetable or peanut oil
- 150g minced beef (optional)
- 2 tablespoons chilli-bean paste (doubanjiang)
- 1 tablespoon fermented soy beans (dou chi), rinsed and drained
- 200ml water
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with
- 1 tablespoon of water
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
1. Cut the tofu into 2cm cubes and leave to steep in very hot, salted water. Slice the spring onions into 3cm-long chunks. Dry-fry the Sichuan pepper in a hot wok until smoking, tip out into a pestle-and-mortar and then grind to a fine powder (you can use pre-ground Sichuan pepper, but it won’t taste as good).
2. If using the beef, pour about 2 tablespoons of oil into a wok and heat. Once smoking, add the minced beef and fry until a little brown and set aside.
3. Add another tablespoon or so of oil, heat and add the chilli-bean paste. Fry for about 30 seconds, taking care not to let it burn, and then add the fermented soy beans and cook for another 30 seconds.
4. Pour in the water, add the sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste and now add the drained tofu cubes. Simmer for about 5 minutes, to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours.
5. Add the spring onions (scallions) and gently stir in. Once they are just cooked, add the starch-and-water mixture to thicken the sauce. Finally, pour everything into a serving dish, scatter with the cooked minced beef and the ground Sichuan pepper and serve.