While not botanically related to black or white pepper, Szechuan pepper and a number of other members of the Zanthoxylum genus are certainly its culinary cousins. Like the other Zanthoxylum peppers, Szechuan pepper forms a naturally untidy, deciduous, spiky bush that grows eventually to about 7m in height and width, though it is perfectly happy being pruned smaller and grown in a large pot.

The leaves of the Szechuan pepper are similar to those of the ash tree, which along with the spikiness gives rise to one of its common names – prickly ash. The leaves emerge in early- to mid-spring, followed quickly by the young flowers that develop through the summer, resembling small elderflower florets. As with elder, once the Szechuan flowers turn into berries through the hotter months they flip over, hanging down and reddening as they ripen.

The red berries of the pepper open as they become fully ripe to resemble miniature beechnuts, 5mm or so in diameter, and for once it’s not the present concealed inside you’re after it’s the wrapping – as that’s where the flavour lies. And what a prize it is. It has been the subject of wars and great expeditions to seek the best routes to where it was grown, and its trade is still a hugely important part of the world-food business.

Szechuan pepper, like all peppers, is much more an experience than a flavour. In Chinese cooking there’s a beautiful distinction made between the two elements of pepperiness: the numbing pungency (“ma”) that sets the tongue and lips tingling, and the spicy heat (“la”) more akin to the heat from a chilli. A crucial ingredient at the heart of Chinese cuisine, Szechuan pepper is usually more “ma” than “la”, and so is often accompanied by chilli in hotter dishes – including the mala sauce made predominantly from Szechuan pepper, chilli, oil, garlic and ginger.

If you’re inquisitive about Szechuan pepper and the concepts of “ma” and “la” and want to know more before you commit to growing it, it’s easy to acquire peppercorns of excellent quality. Chances are they’ll come with the outer pink casing open and without the black seed held within. But whether you’ve bought or grown your own peppercorns, it’s worth taking a little time to enjoy your first tasting. Split a seed case in two and nibble slowly on a single half at the front of your mouth. Don’t rush this, as the flavours and sensations take time to unfold and, the more you chew, the quicker these subtle changes take place. The experience is very much longer and more complex than with black pepper, so let it develop slowly.

This usually begins with a citrusy, lemon sherbet wave that gradually gives way to warm heat (the “la”). It’s a sweet marriage, like the perfect tomatoes with acid and sweet in beautiful balance, but it passes, almost with the click of a switch, into a strangely numbing, almost anaesthetic feeling (the “ma”) on the lips and tongue. It can be slightly unnerving at first but it is peculiarly addictive, perhaps because it is purported to give you a spiritual lift to go with that sensual experience.

Spiritual or otherwise, there’s simply nothing quite like it – it’s a delightful window into the hidden world of pepper.

Varieties

There are several different species of Szechuan pepper, as well as many more closely related peppers within the Zanthoxylum group, each of which lends their own characteristic flavour to their particular regions’ cuisine.
Zanthoxylum schinifolium and Z. simulans are the two most common varieties of Szechuan pepper. If you have room for just one variety I’d go for the former. I prefer its lighter touch – it’s more “ma” than “la”. The peppercorns aren’t overly powerful but do have a wonderful light wave of heat to accompany their bright lemony overtones and characteristically tingly “ma”-ness.

Growing

Szechuan pepper. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Buying peppercorns can be expensive, yet the plants are perfectly easy to grow, and by doing so you’ll get all those wonderful “ma” and “la” qualities at the top of their game. You can grow plants from seed but you’ll be a good few years away from harvesting. Plants, by contrast, will afford you a harvest considerably sooner and are relatively cheap, as you’ll easily make the outlay back in earlier harvests. Simply plant your bush and prune to the size you like as it grows.

Mulching around the base is vital to minimising competition as the plant establishes. It’s also sensible to wind a tree guard around the base of the young bark as it makes easy nibbling for rabbits that are perhaps partial to a sensuous lift too.

As well as the prospect of peppercorns, your plant gives you the excuse to stop every time you pass, to rub the leaves for their heady hit of spice and citrus. Like a tea break, it provides a perfect punctuation to the day, and is up there with popping fresh peas into your mouth as one of the finest kitchen-garden treats.

Keep your Szechuan pepper plants away from any other citrus plants you may have. They are in the same family (Rutaceae) as limes, oranges and lemons and Szechuan peppers can carry the canker that attacks citrus trees. In 1968 the US Agriculture Department banned the import of all Rutaceae plants as well as their products – including Szechuan peppercorns – sparking off a lively underground market for the peppercorns, especially within Chinese communities where its “ma la” qualities are so crucial to many dishes. Thankfully the ban was lifted in 2005 for peppercorns that had been heat-treated to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria.

Harvesting

Harvesting is best done as soon as the pinky red seedcases begin to open and show their dark seed – usually as summer turns to autumn. The outer shell is where the heat and aromatics are held (the seed is usually flavourless) but pick whole florets, leave them to dry somewhere warm for a day or two, and they should be ready to go into the peppermill.

If the peppercorns are still closed in mid-autumn, pick them and lay them out on a piece of paper indoors. Within a couple of days the heat from the house will dry the outer skins and they’ll split to reveal the seeds.
I’ve read that the dark seeds can be bitter – this is not my experience, but some find the seed a little gritty. If so, you may wish to lightly bash them using a mortar and pestle as this splits the outer cases, releasing the seed for separating.

Store the unground peppercorns in an airtight container away from bright sunlight until you’re ready to use them; they should retain their oomph for a year or so if kept in this way.

Eating

Once under its spell, you’ll find endless uses for Szechuan pepper in the kitchen. However you plan to use the peppercorns, a gentle toasting should really bring out those aromatics (and fill your house with its fine perfume) but it’s best to toast and create your powder in relatively small quantities – as the peppercorns retain that potent zing for longer than after grinding.

Szechuan pepper is often used in the form of flavoured salt. It is wonderfully simple to prepare. Toast or dry fry equal amounts of coarse salt and peppercorns together until it just starts to smoke. When the mix is cool, use a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder to reduce it to a coarse powder. You can use it any time you might salt and pepper: to season meat before, during or after cooking, (try it sprinkled over slow roast belly pork), but my favourite way of using Szechuan salt and pepper is to toss a bowlful of chips in a little of the mix and enjoy it with a cold beer. The combination of the hot chips, the tingling ‘ma’ and the peppery “la” quenched by the cold beer is unbeatable.

Chinese Five Spice Powder is very much at the heart of Szechuan cooking and has recently become popular across the world. Making your own is simple, and the results are infinitely superior to even the very best shop-bought jar.

Chinese five spice powder

Grinding Chinese five spice. Photograph: Laura Hynd

Chinese Five Spice goes wonderfully well with chicken and pork as a marinade, but nothing quite beats it rubbed into the lightly-oiled skin of a duck or goose before roasting.This recipe works perfectly well using already ground spices, but if you can use whole spices and grind them yourself you’ll notice a keenness about the flavours that’s really special. The resulting blend will be beautifully fresh, alive and bright, without the need for the citrus that’s often added to commercial mixes.

Makes about 1 x 225g jar

2 star anise or 1½ tbsp ground star anise
1½ tsp fennel seeds
5cm of cinnamon stick or 2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp Szechuan pepper
6 cloves

Preheat the oven to 140C/Gas 1. Place any of the spices that you are using whole on a baking tray and put them in the oven for 4 minutes, until lightly toasted.

Use a clean coffee grinder or pestle and mortar to reduce the spices to a fine powder. Sieve out any larger particles if you prefer, and store in an airtight jar away from direct sunlight. The spice powder mix should keep its zing for 3 months or so.

Five spice pork rillettes

Rillettes is as much a way of cooking as it is a recipe. The principle is simple – it is just meat (pork in this case, though it works equally well for rabbit and most poultry) cooked very gently in its own fat. The addition of Chinese Five Spice Powder here adds a warm depth and fragrance to the rillettes that improves with age.

Makes about 1kg

300g pork fat or lard
1kg pork shoulder or pork belly, cut into chunks
4 garlic cloves
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice Powder
1 tbsp salt
1–2 tbsp olive oil
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
10g parsley, tough stalks removed
6 spring onions, sliced lengthways
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp cider apple brandy or dry sherry

Preheat your oven to 70°C/Gas ¼.

Place your pork fat in a dish at the bottom of the oven and render slowly, pouring the liquid fat off into a bowl every 15 minutes or so. Leave to cool.

Turn the oven up to 140°C/Gas 1.

Cut the pork into strips 2cm wide along the grain of the meat. Crush the garlic and mix it with the Five Spice Powder, the salt and enough olive oil to make a thick paste and rub in into the pork strips. Place two-thirds of the rendered fat or lard in a wide ovenproof dish, pour in 100ml water and add the meat. Tie the herbs and spring onions together in a small square of muslin and add to the water. Place the dish in the oven and let it cook for a minimum of 4 hours. The liquid should be just moving, rather than bubbling hard – turn it down a little if necessary.

After 4 hours, take the dish out of the oven and carefully take 2 forks to it – if the meat is completely tender and it tears apart easily, it’s done. If it’s not ready, turn the oven off and return the dish to the oven for a further hour.

When the meat has cooled enough to handle, take out the herb bag and shred the meat thoroughly with 2 forks. Taste a little, and add salt and pepper if you fancy. You can add a little extra Five Spice at this stage if you’d like a stronger flavour, but you probably won’t need to as it will develop over time. Add a splash of cider apple brandy or dry sherry and mix everything together.

Transfer the rillette to a sterilised terrine or kilner jar, compacting the mixture lightly to push out air pockets and submerging the meat under the fat. Pour over the remaining third of the warmed, rendered fat. Cool, then refrigerate. The rillette is best left for the flavours to develop for a few days.

Rillettes are good straight from the fridge on crusty bread, better at room temperature, and incredible warmed gently until the fat begins to run. Serve with something sharp such as pickled gherkins or Jerusalem artichokes, or a salad with a lively dressing. Rillettes will keep in the fridge for several months in clean jars, so long as the pork is preserved under 5mm or so of fat.

• This extract is taken from A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono (Quadrille, £20)

Szechuan Pepper – Z. schinifolium

Product Description

Grow your own Szechuan pepper – the pink peppercorns ripen in autumn and after a day or two drying in the sun carry a punchy, lemony flavour and an incredible aroma. The leaves can also be used to flavour. A hardy perennial that grows as a thorny bush – keep it small with pruning or let it grow huge.

Sold as 1m or so tall, in 4 litre pots.

We’d recommend growing them in pots for a year or so to get them off to the best start, potting them on when needed. They are hardy – we’ve had them to -18°C here, but best to give them a careful start when small. Protect from rabbits and avoid strimming them to bits – I flattened one with the strimmer a few years ago and it came back very strongly but it’s not a pruning technique I’d recommend.

Happy in most soils but likes the sun. Over time plants can reach many metres in height and spread if allowed to, but can be pruned to a smaller size and for container growing.

Pick entire heads when the outer shells begin to split revealing the dark seed inside. This can be anytime from October to December depending on the weather. Dry for a few days in the warmth and remove the stems before storing. Peppercorns freeze well too, keeping their flavour for longer.

In our experience, a single plant will produce peppercorns, though if planted in multiples each may produce more heavily.

There are a number of peppers that fall into the umbrella of Szechuan pepper: this one is Zanthoxylum schinifolium which is more citrus in flavour than most.

Check here for a little more about them, including a clip of harvesting.

Szechuan Pepper Info – Learn How To Grow Szechuan Peppers

Szechuan pepper plants (Zanthoxylum simulans), sometimes known as Chinese peppers, are graceful, spreading trees that reach mature heights of 13 to 17 feet (4-5 m.). Szechuan pepper plants provide year-round ornamental value, beginning with lush blooms in late spring and early summer. The flowers are followed by berries that turn bright red in early autumn. The gnarly branches, contorted shape and woody spines add interest throughout the winter.

Are you interested in raising your own Szechuan pepper? Growing this sturdy plant isn’t difficult for gardeners in USDA plant hardiness zones 6 through 9. Read on and learn how to grow Szechuan peppers.

Szechuan Pepper Info

Where do Szechuan peppers come from? This fascinating tree hales from the Szechuan region of China. Szechuan pepper plants are actually more closely related to citrus trees than to familiar chili peppers or peppercorns.

The peppers, which show up when the trees are two to three years old, aren’t widely used in the United States. However, they are a staple in Asia, where they are used to add spice to a variety of dishes.

According to the Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices by P.N. Ravindran, the tiny seedpods have a unique flavor and aroma that isn’t pungent like familiar red or black peppercorns. Most cooks prefer to toast and crush the pods before adding them to food.

How to Grow Szechuan Peppers

Szechuan pepper plants, generally planted in spring or fall, thrive in flower beds or large containers.

Plant Szechuan peppers in nearly any type of well-drained soil. A handful of all-purpose fertilizer added to the soil at planting time will provided extra nutrition that gets the plant off to a good start.

Szechuan pepper plants tolerate full sun or partial shade; however, afternoon shade is beneficial in hotter climates.

Water as necessary to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Water is important during extended dry periods, especially for plants grown in pots.

Szechuan pepper plants generally don’t require much pruning. Trim them to enhance the shape and remove dead or damage growth, but be careful not to prune new growth, as this is where new peppers develop.

Szechuan pepper plants are generally unaffected by pests and disease.

Harvest Szechuan pepper plants in autumn. Put a tarp under the tree to catch the pods, then shake the branches. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the spikes when working with Szechuan pepper plants.

How to Grow Szechuan Pepper

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The Szechuan pepper, also known as the Chinese pepper, is grown for its spicy taste as well for the its ornamental looks. The Szechuan pepper tree can reach a height of 17 feet, and therefore is better suited for those who have a little garden room. If you live in USDA zones 6 through 9, you can grow Szechuan pepper right in your garden! These stunning trees provide year-round decorative value and bloom in late spring and early summer.

After flowering, bright red berries appear in early autumn, making this one of the most interested looking trees you will grow!

A Guide on How Grow Szechuan Peppers

Szechuan Pepper Info:

Before we get into how to grow Szechuan peppers, it’s important to know a little bit about their background and history! As you may have already guessed, these trees come from the Szechuan region of China. Contrary to popular belief, Szechuan pepper is actually related more to citrus trees than chilli peppers or peppercorns.

Altough Szechuan pepper trees aren’t too popular in North America, they are used widely all over the world for their unique and spicy aroma!

Growing Szechuan Pepper:

Szechuan pepper plants actually prefer to grow in large pots or containers and are planed in spring or fall.Plant seeds or small trees in well draining soil and add a handful of all-purpose fertilizer at planting time. This will give the plant extra nutrients and start off the growth process.

Plant your Szechuan pepper tree in partial or full sun. In hotter climates, these trees prefer afternoon sun. Water regularly and make sure the soil is always moist but never soggy.

Prune away dead branches, but be careful not to cut new growth as that is where the peppers grow. Harvest the pepper plants in autumn. Simply place a tarp under the tree to catch the pepper pods and shake the tree vigorously.

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The pepper called for in the classic Chinese Five Spice Powder is neither the familiar black pepper (Piper nigrum) nor chili pepper (Capsicum annuum). Rather, it is the Sichuan pepper, also known as the Szechuan pepper, (Zanthoxylum simulans) that is native to China and used in many Southeast Asian cuisines. It is a member of the citrus family which is reflected in the flavor which is citrus-y rather than hot. It has a numbing effect in the mouth so it is best to never use too much. A little bit goes a long way.

Sichuan pepper is also used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat stomach and digestive problems.

Sichuan Pepper Bush with Thorns and Berries

Another nickname for the tree is Chinese Prickly Ash because it is covered with thorns and its leaves resemble those of the ash tree. Sichuan pepper is a large bush/small tree that is hardy through zone 5. It reaches a height of 5 to 8 feet so it is suitable for container growing with a little pruning. It prefers full sun but will tolerate a little shade. Like most herbs, it needs well-drained soil

Bloomtime is in the spring. The flowers grow in florets and resemble elderberry flowers. The berries that follow hang down and ripen into a bright red. If you are growing from seed or from a seedling from a nursery, expect to wait 2 to 3 years for flowers and berries.

Sichuan Pepper Pericarps

Surprisingly it’s not the berries that you use for seasoning. The berries have no use and are usually discarded. It’s the covering or pericarp that surrounds the seed that is used in both cooking and medicine. It is used both whole and as finely ground powder. The pericarp is roasted before use.

In the case of Sichuan Pepper Oil, the whole berry including the pericarp is used. Canola oil is heated and the peppercorns added to infuse the flavor into the oil. Some recipes call for additional ingredients such as chili peppers and ginger.

Keep your shrubs well-mulched and away from other citrus plants. They can carry a citrus canker that can be passed to other citrus trees and injure the leaves and fruit. Sichuan peppercorns were banned from the US from 1968 to 2005 to protect the citrus crop from this contagious bacterial disease. The ban was lifted with the caveat that the peppercorns be heated to 140⁰F for ten minutes or longer to kill the bacteria.

Szechuan Pepper – Z. simulans

Szechuan Pepper, Flatspine Prickly Ash

Category:

Shrubs

Water Requirements:

Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater

Sun Exposure:

Sun to Partial Shade

Foliage:

Grown for foliage

Evergreen

Deciduous

Smooth

Foliage Color:

Burgundy/Maroon

Height:

15-20 ft. (4.7-6 m)

Spacing:

15-20 ft. (4.7-6 m)

Hardiness:

USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)

USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)

USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)

USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)

USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)

USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)

USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)

USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)

Where to Grow:

Unknown – Tell us

Danger:

N/A

Bloom Color:

Chartreuse (yellow-green)

Bloom Characteristics:

Flowers are fragrant

Bloom Size:

Unknown – Tell us

Bloom Time:

Late Winter/Early Spring

Mid Spring

Other details:

Unknown – Tell us

Soil pH requirements:

5.6 to 6.0 (acidic)

6.1 to 6.5 (mildly acidic)

6.6 to 7.5 (neutral)

7.6 to 7.8 (mildly alkaline)

7.9 to 8.5 (alkaline)

Patent Information:

Unknown – Tell us

Propagation Methods:

From softwood cuttings

From seed; winter sow in vented containers, coldframe or unheated greenhouse

Seed Collecting:

Allow seedheads to dry on plants; remove and collect seeds

Seed does not store well; sow as soon as possible

Regional

This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:

Birmingham, Alabama

Bedford, Iowa

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