The true pepper

Chengdu spice stall

My acupuncturist friend Simon came for lunch the other day, and one of the dishes I cooked was that old favourite mapo doufu (Pock-Marked Old Woman’s beancurd). For some reason we ended up talking about Sichuan pepper, and Simon mentioned that he had some stocks in his pharmacy. I doubted that it would be as zingy as the best stuff, so I sent him home with a sample of the pepper I use (a gift from my chef friend Yu Bo), with strict instructions to try his regular pepper first, and then try chewing a bit of mine. His comments, copied below with his permission from an email he sent me yesterday, are a good illustration of what it’s like trying fantastic Sichuan pepper for the first time!

“I tried the Hua Jiao the next day and the experience was truly remarkable; I fished out some peppers from my pharmacy and chomped for a few seconds introducing the fragrant oils to my taste buds…..the result was a flavour that resembled the vibrancy of a shrivelled balloon long forgotten from a distant party, forlorn and wilted. Then I produced 4 small fruits, innocuous in appearance but with an altogether more forthright, aromatic fragrance. For continuities sake I repeated the chomp, the beckoning of saliva to carry the flavour to the somewhat disappointed taste buds and then…..the dragon seemed to stir in the East from it’s winter slumber and the awakening yawn sent a fiery blast rippling like molten lava around the edges of my tongue and before I could fully rejoice in the New Year fireworks a dozen giant centipedes in heavy workman’s boots started tap dancing on both my bottom and top lips…Wow, what a party, it carried on for at least an hour. I now truly know the difference between quality Hua Jiao and a pseudo shell of an aged pepper.”

Incidentally, I reckon the main reason for the scarcity of decent hua jiao in Chinese supermarkets is that they are mainly run by the Cantonese, who have little taste for the numbing sensation that the Sichuanese adore. Outside Sichuan, and Sichuanese restaurants abroad, Sichuan pepper is mainly used in spice mixtures, and for its medicinal qualities, so a lack of ma zinginess is not really missed.

12 Responses to “The true pepper”

  1. StevieH

    Hi there.

    You mention the scarcity of hua jiao in supermarkets. Do you know anywhere where you can actually find some? I am lucky enough to work around the corner from London China town…but I’m always a but suspect about the large bags that I find there. I’d prefer to pay for quality.

    I was lucky enough to go to China a few years ago – so I have a small stash of quite good stuff….but it’s going to run out soon :o(



  2. Alex

    Stevie – You can get pretty good stuff from Spice Mountain ( at Borough Market. I also managed to get a small pot for free when I ate at Red Bar restaurant on Bethnal Green Rd! The latter was really top quality, but the Spice Mountain pepper is nearly as good.

  3. Benjamin

    Hi. Great website. Love your books. Do you know of any source for mail-ordering high quality Sicuhan pepper in the US? I would really like to try some of the high-end stuff. Thanks!

  4. Tania Sanchez

    For the US: I don’t know how this measures up to what Fuchsia is cooking with, but after I’d been long infuriated at the dried up old pellets they call Sichuan pepper in most Chinese supermarkets and specialty spice stores, I found to my surprise an outfit called Frontier that sells vacuum-packed Sichuan pepper in bulk on, of all places, and it is INTENSE.

  5. Dave_C

    The US import restriction, mentioned above, has been lifted for a few years now. However, the Sichuan peppers entering the US have been (supposed to be) heated to 160F. Some folks blame the heating for the blandness of Sichuan peppers in the US.

  6. Frank Sciacca

    A few years back I found a jar of sichaun peppers at our local Williams Sonoma. I was impressed by its vibrant red color and got it… that was an eye-opener! What fragrance! I immediately threw out the dismal Chinatown stuff I had. But alas, I have nearly run out… and Williams Sonoma has stopped carrying it. Bought a jar recently at Fairway in NYC (their store label)– nice color, but that fragrance is missing. Having just finished Fuchsia’s “Sichuan Peppers” memoir, I checked the few peppercorns from Williams-Sonoma I had left– sure enough, there were the little balls she describes. Will try Frontier brand to see how it stacks up.

  7. Huw de Chroustchoff

    Woo Sang in Manchester’s China Town sells very good sichuan pepper. It’s in bags with their ow label and sold by weight. Even through the plastic it smells far better other varieties I’ve found elsewhere.

  8. Julie O'Neill

    My Chinese daughter in law to be brought me over the real thing from Beijing. It does exactly as Simon describes. Unfortunately I’ve run out and the stuff in the Asian Food market in Dublin is a pale imitation. Desperately hunting a mail order source that will deliver to Ireland.mThe Cool Chilli Company no longer seem to do Sichuan pepper. All ideas welcome.

  9. Chris

    Is heat treatment required in the UK if they import these from China? I live in the US and order mine from the UK, believing (perhaps falsely) that I am cleverly circumventing the heat treatment process those destined for sale in the US are subject to. Does anybody know?

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