Szechuan pepper isn’t really a pepper or a peppercorn. It’s really a member of the citrus family, a dried rind of a small fruit. The seeds, shiny and black, are discarded. It is best applied at the end of cooking, as it breaks down with excess heat. Here the powder version doesn’t seem to lose its punch as much as it would with a pepper pod. Ground can be convenient, although you need coarse, also available, so you end up storing a lot more than just buying the whole husks and using a mortar and pestle or a spice mill.
Szechuan pepper has mildly pungent, lemon overtones with a mild, tingly numbness of the mouth called “málà” in Chinese, that is caused by a small amount of hydroxy alpha sanshool in the husks of the fruit.
Popular in Chinese, Nepalese, Indian, Indonesian, and Tibetan, cuisines, Szechuan pepper originates from China.
Szechuan pepper was widely traded throughout Asia and Indonesia both as a spice and a medicinal herb. It can be found in so many daily cuisines as a result. Popularized by the spicy Szechuan cooking craze in America in the 1980s, the fruit became a big seller on the spice racks of American stores that offered Asian foods.
The United States government banned Szechuan pepper from the late 1960’s because the fruit husks could potentially carry citrus canker bacteria and infect the American citrus crop. The ban was loosely adhered to, and was lifted in 2005 under the condition that all szechuan pepper imported be roasted at 70°C/158F to kill the bacteria.
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