What is a Sichuan Peppercorn?

The Sichuan (sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) peppercorn is actually not a peppercorn in the traditional sense.  It is the outer pod of a tiny fruit (a species of plant in the genus Zanthoxylum) widely grown in Asia as a spice.  It is widely used in the cuisine of Sichuan Province in China, as well as in Tibetan, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Japanese, Konkani, and Batak, Toba cuisines, among others.

In Chinese, the Sichuan peppercorn is known as huājiāo (花 椒; literally "flower pepper"). Though it is relatively unknown in the United States because of an importation ban related to potential damage to citrus trees from 1968 to 2005, you may find it called "Szechwan pepper," "Chinese pepper," "Japanese pepper," "aniseed pepper," "Chinese prickly-ash," "Fagara," "sansho," "Nepal pepper," or "Indonesian lemon pepper."  Because of its limited availability and high cost, many "Sichuan" seasonings don't contain actual Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan pepper is an important spice in the Nepali (Gorkha), Tibetan and Bhutanese cooking in the Himalayas because so few spices can be grown there. It is popular in the momo, a dumpling filled with vegetables and meat and spiced with the Sichuan peppercorn.

Sichuan peppercorns have a very unique aroma and flavor that is not hot or pungent like other peppers, but has fragrant lemon overtones and creates a tingly sensation in the mouth that works well with hot spices. That sensation, called "má" (麻 literally "numbing") in Chinese, is a key ingredient in one of the most common flavors in modern Chinese cuisine, "málà", a combination of "má" and "hot (piquant)" (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce. The flavor is found in a variety of dishes, from cold noodle dishes, to fried fishes to soups (including hot pots) or as a dipping sauce.

Interestingly, "málà" is also sometimes used in Mandarin slang to mean "sexy". The Mandarin title of the animated series Kim Possible is Málà Nuhái (麻辣女孩 literally "numbing-hot girl").