About Sichuan Pepper
Málà (麻辣) is the iconic flavor of Sichuan cuisine. “là” refers to the burning heat from hot chili peppers, but “má” is the delightful tingling, numbing, sensation from Sichuan Pepper (花椒) that is novel to world foodies.
There are two types of Sichuan Peppers - red and green. As with grapes, the red is not a more mature version of the green - they are two varieties with distinct flavors. Both are native to Sichuan, and while the red peppers have been used in cooking for centuries, the green variety has only become popular in China in the past 20 years.
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What is Sichuan pepper?
Sichuan pepper, or huā jiāo 花椒 (flower pepper), is the iconic spice widely used in Sichuan and Chinese cuisines. Not actually a pepper, it is harvested from the prickly ash tree (Zanthoxylum), which is in the citrus family. Because it isn’t a pepper, there is no heat when you try Sichuan pepper. Instead, you will feel a numbing tingle on your tongue!
What’s the difference between green and red Sichuan pepper?
Many people are unaware that Sichuan pepper comes in two varieties - red and green. They are not in different stages of maturity but two plants with distinct flavors. Think of red wine grapes and white wine grapes. Both red and green are native to Sichuan (and nearby regions), and while the red ones have been used in cooking for thousands of years, the green variety is more boutique and has only become popular in China in the past 20 years. Flavor-wise, the green is brighter, more aromatic, and pairs better with fish, seafood and vegetables, just like the white wine, while the red is more full-bodied, woodsier and pairs better with tofu, red meat, like red wine.
How is Sichuan pepper treated and preserved?
Fresh Sichuan peppers tend to spoil quickly, therefore, they need to be treated immediately. There are three common treatments to preserve the aroma, the flavor, and the tingling sensation of Sichuan pepper.
a. Dried Sichuan pepper: The most common preservation is to make dried Sichuan peppers. At a certain temperature, the shells will split open and the black seeds inside will pop out. The aromatic and numbing molecules are concentrated on the shell while the inner black seed is discarded as it is too gritty and flavorless. Dried Sichuan pepper can be used whole or ground into powder. *Note* Sichuan pepper will lose its potency quickly after being ground so please grind it into a powder only shortly before you have to use it.
b. Sichuan pepper oil: Once ground into a powder, Sichuan pepper loses its potency quickly. So to better retain the flavor, fresh Sichuan peppers are infused into neutral rapeseed oil for a longer potency shelf life. Bonus, it’s also much easier to use! You can read how Fuchsia Dunlop, the esteemed chef and author on Chinese food, has explained this.
c. Frozen Sichuan pepper: We freeze part of the harvest directly and thaw them later when using. Fresh peppers are commonly used as a pretty garnish on many dishes.
How is our Sichuan pepper oil made?
We infuse fresh peppers in rapeseed oil for the aromatic and numbing particles to be released from the oil bumps on the pepper's skin. This requires a certain temperature and ultrasonic vibration to "massage" the peppers in the oil. Compared to deep frying the fresh peppers to extract the essence, our method preserves the essence of the fresh peppers and is the least intrusive way to make Sichuan pepper oils.
Why do we use rapeseed oil as the base oil?
Rapeseed oil has been used in cooking for thousands of years and is often described as the "blood of Sichuan cuisine". We use premium non-GMO cold-pressed rapeseed oil in our product. It is made from low-erucic-acid, non-GMO strains of rapeseeds. People often get confused about the difference between canola oil and rapeseed oil. While both canola and rapeseed belong to the cabbage or mustard family, have flowers of that characteristic bright yellow color, and can get oil from seeds, the two plant-based cooking oils, however, are different. Although Rapeseed oil is one of the oldest edible oils in the world, some strains have a high percentage of erucic acid. That is why Canada came up with a new, low-acid strain of the plant in the 1970s through traditional plant crossbreeding. The newly developed plant was renamed “canola” – a combination of “CAN” for “Canada” and "OLA " for "Oil, low acid".
Why does eating Sichuan pepper make your mouth numb and tingly?
The tingling sensation is caused by a molecule called hydroxy-α-sanshool. While humans have nerve endings all over our skin, this aromatic molecule can only reach those nerve receptors where the skin is very thin, such as on the mouth and lips. This is why we experience a stimulating pleasant sensation when tasting Sichuan Pepper.
*Nerd fact* When scientists at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London studied Sichuan Pepper, they found that the “frequency of the tingling induced by Sichuan Pepper was consistently at around 50 Hertz”, giving rise to our company’s name.
How to tell the quality of Sichuan peppers?
Dried Sichuan Peppers
- Bright colors: Look for bags of dried peppers with husks that aren’t dark and brown but are instead rich red or green shades. The brighter the shade, the fresher they are. This will give you the best numbing effect!
- A floral aroma: A delightful and potent floral and citrusy aroma.
- A potent taste: A small bite of the dried peppers will give you a tingly jolt and activate your receptors to involuntarily make you salivate. After the initial strangeness, many people seem to quickly succumb to Sichuan pepper's floral citrus aroma and tingling charm.
- Few black seeds: Avoid bags with many black seeds and stems as these seeds are hard and tasteless, and you might need to spend a lot of time sorting through the bag to discard these black seeds.
Sichuan Pepper Powder
- Ground Sichuan pepper loses its potency in a couple of months. This is why we don’t sell it because we believe in potent flavors!
Sichuan Pepper Oils
- The aroma of Sichuan pepper should hit you the moment you uncap the bottle of oil. If it doesn’t, it might be an older bottle of Sichuan pepper oil.
- If you taste the oil and it leaves a bitter aftertaste, the Sichuan Pepper oil was not processed well.
Why use Sichuan pepper oils?
Popular in many recipes, dried Sichuan pepper is often toasted and ground before being sprinkled over a dish or cooked. Once ground into a powder, Sichuan pepper loses its potency quickly. This multi-step process can be replaced by just drizzling some Sichuan pepper oil instead. The beauty of Sichuan pepper oil is that it keeps the flavor for a long time, and it’s much easier to use. You can read how Fuchsia Dunlop, the esteemed chef and author on Chinese food, has explained this.
Almost to our surprise, after talking to several Chinese chefs in the US, we learnt that most Chinese restaurants in the US are using Sichuan pepper oils in their dishes, not dried Sichuan peppers.
How to use dried Sichuan peppers?
Recipes usually call for Sichuan pepper to be toasted and ground. First, check the dried pepper for any twigs, leaves, and tiny black seeds and remove them as they are tasteless and have a gritty texture. Then heat the dried peppers in a frying pan over medium-low heat until you start to smell the lovely aroma. Remove them from the heat and grind them after they have cooled. The toasted dried pepper can also be saved in an airtight jar to grind when needed in a recipe. Remember, don’t grind the peppers until you are ready to use them as they will lose their potency very quickly after they’ve been ground.
How to use Sichuan pepper oil?
In case you’re feeling too lazy to toast and ground dried Sichuan pepper, just use Sichuan pepper oil instead. Besides being more convenient to use, it also preserves the flavor and potency much longer. The floral bouquet flavor stimulates your palate and nose, while the unique tingling sensation stimulates your tongue and lips. Best as a condiment, drizzle over eggs, pasta, ramen, pizza, salads… and many more dishes!
How is Sichuan pepper stored?
Whether it’s the oil or the dried peppers, we recommend refrigeration to prolong the flavor and potency. Please make sure that all bottles and containers are tightly sealed to prevent smells from other food in the refrigerator contaminating the Sichuan pepper.
Why can’t you find good Sichuan peppers easily outside of China?
First, Sichuan pepper was erroneously banned outright for four decades from 1968 to 2005 because of an unjustifiable claim that fresh Sichuan peppers might carry a canker bacteria which could attack other citrus trees. The ban was finally lifted but with a caveat that all dried peppers had to be heated to 140 °F (60 °C) for 10 minutes or more - a detrimental act to kill the flavor and potency. These articles in the New York Times and on USDA website have more details: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/27/dining/sichuans-signature-is-now-legal-again.html and https://www.usda.gov/media/radio/weekly-features/2018-04-03/chinas-sichuan-peppercorns-banned-us-no-more.
Furthermore, the importers of Sichuan pepper to the US had been mainly Cantonese for decades. They simply included Sichuan pepper in their hundreds of other Chinese ingredients without really caring for or understanding the beauty of this spice. Only until recently, with the advent of importers who are actually from Sichuan like ourselves, are premium Sichuan peppers sourced and brought into the US without the unnecessary heat treatment.
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