I’ve discovered Szechuan pepper thanks to a delicious dish which I ate in Cracow’s vegetarian restaurant Pod Norenami. This amazing dish which is constantly on my mind is Szechuan tofu with pepper and peanuts.
Of course I make an attempt to prepare it at home, my way. The basis is Szechuan pepper, obviously. But I won’t write about tofu dish this time. This post will be all about this spice.
But why wrote so much about Szechuan pepper? It’s just a addition to the meal, besides it’s only a pepper. No one writes about black peeper or white one. But just let me explain!
First of all Szechuan pepper amaze me with its look. Little husk in many shades from delicate red to strong burgundy, almost black. What’s more the shells are covered with tiny thorns. They look like small sea creatures, or leeches, or prickly pear fruits. Just adorable.
Another reason is this unusual aroma which I smelled as soon as I opened the package. Little bit like herbs (maybe lavender?) with strong citrus line. This atypical flavour is due to huge amount of essential oils.
So adding together this two features I began to be more and more intrigued by this pepper. Why it is sold with husks? Why it smells like lemon? So I started to dig up for more information.
Szechuan pepper, despite its name, has nothing in common with black Indian pepper. Its roots are in China and in plant kingdom is on totally another branch than another peppers.
This little husks with seeds are fruits of zanthoxylum called “toothache tree” or prickly ash tree. First common name is thanks to habit of chewing leaves and husk as a cure for toothache. And what about ash? It’s all about little seeds hidden is husk which if not ground, they crackle in mouth like sand. So the whole spice is in husks! But why this pepper has lemon taste? Because this tree belongs to the citrus family. And all become clear: taste, smell and weird shape of husks.
But despite lemon flavour it is still called pepper. And here another story begins! Szechuan pepper has this amazing characteristic, some might say it could be addictive!
When we taste it we will feel a tingling sensation on our tongue. It may even go numb! So it’s considered to be quite spicy and hot, but I think it’s due to this tingling.
Szechuan peeper is often mixed with chilli to soften and balance hot taste. Lemon flavour fits perfect to chilli. And a novocaine which is responsible for tingling, desensitises us for capsaicinum effect.
Szechuan pepper is also very tasty as a addition to salt. It’s also one of ingredients in five spice powder. Another ingredients are: star aniseed, fennel seeds, cloves and cinnamon.
Despite its Chinese origins it’s also widely known in Japan as mountain pepper (sansho) and is added to seven spice mix (sichimi).
In Szechuan popular is a combination of this pepper with ginger and aniseed. It’s also added to popular Chinese “hot pots”
How we can handle this weird pepper?
Before we grind it is good to roast them to get more aroma. Next we should grind it finely. The only problem are seeds which are very hard and tasteless. So we should grind the whole (husks and seeds) thoroughly, or we can remove them before and grind only the husks.
Roasted husks can be also used to flavour oil or olive oil.
About healthy benefits, it can clear our bile ducts. What’s more it’s antibacterial ans antifungal and good if we catch a cold.
What can we do with Szechuan pepper in kitchen?
I think that we can use it in every dish in which we want to have lightly lemon taste. The smell and taste of this pepper bring the summer memories into my kitchen.
It fits perfect with tofu, tempeh, rice, seasonal veggies like pepper or French beans.
I want to try it with spinach, make a mixture with sea salt. And I’m quite intrigued by recipe I found: popcorn with Szechuan pepper.
Of course it’s worth to remember about traditional companions: ginger and chilli. I thinks it will work well in dips and grill marinades.
And soon I will show you a recipe for my beloved Szechuan tofu.