Szechuan peppercorns are believed to have originated in the Szechuan region of China, hence the name. These days, however, they are grown in places like India, Tibet, Thailand, and Northern Vietnam.
It has a unique taste and aroma, with hints of citrus and pine. The peppercorns have a slightly spicy flavour with a slight numbing sensation on your tongue. This is because they contain a lively and active ingredient called sanshool.
The spice is traditionally used as a condiment for dishes, but it also has medicinal properties.
Szechuan peppercorns are used in many different ways, including for pickling vegetables, roasting meats, or cooking rice dishes.
What Do Szechuan Peppercorns Taste Like?
If you are eating a dish with Szechuan pepper, the taste will not be spicy like chilli; the sensation is more numbing than anything else. There’s no fiery heat, but the tongue and lips will likely have an intense tingling sensation.
Anyone who eats this kind of pepper will experience a strange numbness from their mouth to their stomach without any sense or feeling of pain or warmth at all.
It also has both salty and woody flavours with an overriding citrus fragrance, which compliments many Asian-inspired dishes.
Overall, Szechuan peppercorns do not actually taste like pepper as we know it but offer an entirely different kind of flavour.
How to Use Szechuan Peppercorns
There are many ways to incorporate Szechuan peppercorns into your food. Szechuan peppercorns can in some of the following:
Szechuan peppercorns can be roasted and ground and added to the rice cooking process to develop a unique and fragrant background flavour to your ordinary plain rice which can then be paired with a range of Chinese dishes.
Szechuan peppercorns can be used both whole and crushed in pickling solutions to pickle vegetables such as cucumbers, cauliflower, and onions to bring a whole different dimension to the finished product.
Often, you’ll throw in a few normal peppercorns when picklings vegetables which adds a subtle background warmth. Szechuan peppercorns can take this to a whole new level.
Szechuan peppercorns can be roasted and ground and added as a dry rub seasoning that can be added to meats that will be roasted. It’s a good idea to combine the Szechuan with other spices to balance out the flavour.
You don’t want your meat to taste solely of Szechuan pepper.
Seasonings and Spice Blends
Szechuan peppercorns are the perfect addition to those seasonings and sauces that require an extra layer of depth and a unique flavour.
They can also complement many other spices to develop unique and exciting spice blends, such as Chinese five-spice powder, which can be added to many dishes.
How to Store Szechuan Peppercorns
You can do many things to Szechuan peppercorns to keep them fresh or make them last a bit longer for future use.
The easiest thing to do is to put them in an airtight container which will keep the peppercorns fresh. Over time, the spice loses its potency.
Any surplus you want to keep over long periods should be processed differently to preserve it.
How to Dry Szechuan Peppercorns
Peppercorns can be dried and then ground with a mortar and pestle to preserve them.
This will remove the moisture in the peppercorns, making it, so they won’t mould or spoil; Good quality dried Szechuan peppercorns will last for 3-4 years if stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
You’ll also want to grind them down into a coarse powder for a better taste rather than just breaking them apart.
Yes, you can freeze Szechuan peppercorns. Lay them out in a single layer on a sheet pan, put the pan into the freezer and let it freeze overnight. Once they are frozen, you can store them in an airtight container or bag.
Substitutes for Szechuan Peppercorns
Szechuan peppercorns are the star of any Szechuan-based dish. But if you can’t find them at your local grocery store, don’t worry! Here are some other spices that will give you a similar taste:
- White or Pink Pepper – White or pink pepper is an excellent substitute for Szechuan peppercorns. It doesn’t have that peppery taste that black pepper has, but it does have that numbing effect like Szechuan peppercorns do.
- Thai, Indian or Pesian Ground Cumin – Whole or ground cumin is a spice that has a warm, earthy taste. It’s often used in Indian, Thai, and Persian dishes. One way to make your Szechuan dish more authentic without the peppercorn is to substitute cumin in place of Szechuan peppercorns.
- Black Peppercorns – Black pepper is a great substitute for Szechuan peppercorns, mainly because you’ve probably got it in the cupboard already.
- Cayenne Pepper – Cayenne pepper is an excellent substitute for Szechuan peppercorns because of its spicy, peppery taste. You can use it to make a dish that has a similar flavor profile to the Szechuan peppercorn dish.
- Paprika – Paprika is a type of ground dried pepper that comes from different types of chilli peppers. It’s a popular spice in Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Spanish cuisine.The taste of paprika can range from mild to spicy, depending on the variety of paprika.
Where to Buy Szechuan Peppercorns
As their popularity grows, these peppercorns can be found in more and more places without having to travel to the source country to obtain them.
Here are a few options to look at buying Szechuan peppercorns:
- Asian Markets – While most Asian markets carry Szechuan peppercorns, a specific Asian market may be challenging to find, depending on where you live.
- Chinese Herb Shops – You can stop by a Chinese herb shop if you have one nearby. Sichuan peppercorns are used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve pain and kill parasites.
- Specific Spice Stores – While you may not have much luck searching for Szechuan peppercorn at the local corner shop, many spice merchants now carry it. It’s typically marketed under the name “Sichuan peppercorn” or “Sichuan pepper.” It can be found loose in fresh or dried formats.
- Larger Supermarkets – Larger supermarket chains that stock many base cooking ingredients or have a designated Asian/oriental section will likely stock Szechuan peppercorns in an easy-to-use format, such ad dried or ground.
- Online Spice Retailers – Of course, you could always buy Sichuan peppercorns online. By searching for “Szechuan peppercorn” or “Sichuan peppercorn,” you will find several shops that sell it.
Szechuan Peppercorns FAQs
If you’ve got other specific questions about Szechuan Peppercorns and how to use them, then these might help:
Sometimes, when eating Szechuan peppercorns, you will find that your tongue becomes numb with a tingling sensation. This is caused by an active ingredient in the peppercorns called sanshool.
They’re not particularly spicy and are similar in spiciness to most common peppercorns. The difference is that the sanshool content can numb your mouth making it appear spicier than it really is.
Before grinding them, toast them in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes until your kitchen is filled with a fragrant smell. You can then tip the peppercorns into a pestle and mortar to grind them up.
Got more questions about Szechuan peppercorns? Then ask away in the comments section at the bottom of this page and we’ll help out as much as possible!
Stacy is a UK Based lifestyle writer who writes in the food and nutrition niches, as well as within the health and wellness sectors. She is a mum of 4 and married to a musician, so sustainability and a pinch of humour are absolutely essential to get over every one of life’s obstacles!