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Spotlight Spice: Szechuan Pepper

Szechuan Pepper

This week’s spotlight spice can be a bit confusing. Is it a peppercorn? No. Maybe it’s a chile? Nope, not a chile either. It’s Szechuan Pepper – or hua jiao, which means flower pepper in Chinese. These “peppercorns” are actually dried berry husks from the prickly ash tree, native to the Szechuan province in central China.

The region is known for its bold and spicy dishes which often feature chiles and garlic along with ginger and anise flavors. Szechuan pepper gives the dishes an unusual, spicy and pungent flavor which begins as warm and citrusy with a bit of woodsy undertone. As you enjoy these dishes, you’re likely to notice a tingling or slight numbing sensation on the tongue – an effect that makes the pepper so unique.

Outside of China you’ll often find Szechuan Pepper in Indonesian Batak cooking and the Himalayan cuisines of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It’s one of the few spices that can thrive in the area’s climate.

Beyond traditional Szechuan dishes, the Szechuan Pepper makes an interesting inclusion in your homemade rubs for meats, poultry, and seafood and is a great addition to sauces for noodle dishes and stir-fries. You’ll want to use this one sparingly at first, as it’s heat and pungency can be quite intense. This pepper will begin to smoke if it gets too hot, so keep the heat low and chuck out any peppercorns that char during cooking.

If you enjoy the flavor of Szechuan Pepper, try keeping a small spice grinder of it handy. It’s great on hearty roasted veggies, chicken, and more, and the grinder will give you perfectly crushed pepper in controllable amounts.

Do you keep Szechuan Pepper in your spice rack? If so – share your favorite dish or way to use it with us in the comments below.

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