If you are a long time student of Spice University, then you know that we have covered four of the five most common peppercorns. The first to be exposed to the light of day was pimenta officinalis and pimenta dioica,allspice berries, a.k.a. Jamaican pepper. The second pepper lesson to appear was on aframomum melegueta,grains of paradise. The third article was about the most common peppercorn, piper nigrum. The fourth peppercorn was Schinus terebinthifolius, pink peppercorns. Now, the final chapter can be written.
Zanthoxylum piperitum, Z. simulans, are two closely related plants commonly known as Sichuan pepper, Szechuan peppercorns, anise pepper, Chinese pepper, fagara, wild pepper and sansho. In spite of its many alternative names which include the word ‘pepper’, these berries are not actual peppercorns. Szechuan peppercorns come from the berries of a small, prickly ash tree which grows in the Szechuan region of China. This central province is well known for the spicy contributions it offers to Chinese cuisine. The Szechuan peppercorn has a spicy, woody, and a delightful citrus aroma that gives a tingling sensation to the tip of the tongue. Szechuan peppercorns are one of the traditional ingredients in the Chinese spice mixture called Chinese Five Spice. The other four ingredients in this mixture are; star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seeds.
Szechuan peppercorns are also available in Asian markets as an oil. In this form it is best used in stir fry noodle dishes without hot spices. Also, a mixture of salt and Szechuan pepper, roasted and browned in a wok can be served as a condiment to accompany chicken, duck and pork dishes.
Szechuan pepper is one of the few spices important for Tibetan and Bhutanese cuisine of the Himalayas, because few spices can be grown there. Tibetans believe it can sanitize meat that may not be fresh. In reality it only serves to mask the foul flavors and odors. Because of the odiferous masking property of Szechuan pepper, in this region it is popular in dishes made of visceral organs.
If you are looking for a burst of unusual flavor, fresh grind the peppercorns for a wonderful accent on baked chicken, risotto, steaks, potato dishes, soups, casseroles, or even on popcorn.