Tingly, numbing, spicy, or just weird? The low-down on Sichuan Peppercorns
Sichuan Peppercorns, or HuaJiao, as they are known in Chinese, are very much the ambassadors of Sichuan Cuisine. They bring the ‘Ma’ or numbingness, to the one-two mala punch of the numb and hot flavors that represent the cuisine. But they are so much more than just numbing, and contribute a great deal more to the food than just that signature tingle.
First things first
The names itself is a misnomer – they are not peppercorns at all, but the husk of a seed of the citrus family. They look like peppercorns, and are used similarly. Even their Chinese name means ‘flower pepper,’ but it’s false marketing. Fresh, good quality, huajiao have a bright, zesty, citrusy punch and super-floral aroma, they hit the nose and the palate before any numbingness or pepperny-ness ensues. This flavor lends so much to the aroma of a dish and contributes an overall brightness hard to describe.
After the initial floral wave, there is a tingly sensation that begins, in a strange and curious way to newcomers, but one that becomes slowly addictive over time. A chemical released by the husk, sends a message to the brain that what it is touching is vibrating, even when it’s not moving at all. So it literally plays a trick on your brain and tastebuds. Your tongue (or lips) begins to tingle, and as a result you salivate like crazy, further spreading the sensation around your mouth. In a way, more than numbing you and making it harder to taste other flavors, it actualizes them in a physical way. It is not spicy in itself, but serves as a sort of catalyst for other flavors, and pairs particularly well with the chili pepper.
Not all Sichuan Peppercorns are alike
In fact there are over 60 varieties, that vary slightly in their appearance, aroma, flavor and tingle-power. The easiest distinction to make is between red peppercorns and green ones. The easiest analogy to make is to red and green apples. They taste and look different, but they both taste like apples. Green peppercorns are considered to have a more bright citrusy aroma and are most commonly used in cooking fish or rabbit. The red ones are floral or woody, sometimes even soapy, and are used in classic stir-frys and ground into a powder and sprinkled on top of other dishes.
Either way the (not) peppercorns bring a uniquely Sichuan flavor and aroma to anything they touch. And while ingredients such as the chili are actually quite new to China, huajiao are native to the region, and one of the indigenous ingredients to the cuisine. They very rightly have earned their role as the ambassador to the province’s famous food. But they are so much more than numbing, with a strong distinct, non-spicy, flavor of their own, and can stand proudly, even without the ‘la’ of the chili.