These special peppers are essential to genuine Sichuan food.
THE LIP-TINGLING, mouth-numbing effect of Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper is so important to Sichuan cuisine that it has its own word: ma. Intensely aromatic with a floral-like citrus flavor, Sichuan pepper isn’t spicy, but it’s often paired with spicy hot (la) peppers to create the flavor most commonly associated with Sichuanese food, ma la.
The spice is not related to other peppercorns; rather, it is the berry of a small prickly tree that’s part of the citrus family in the genus Zanthoxylum. All the flavor and effect come from the colored husk that surrounds a tiny (tasteless) black seed.
About five years ago, chef, author, dairy farmer, cheesemaker and ice-cream maven Kurt Timmermeister considered writing a book on Chinese food. He planted the ingredients he’d need on his farm on Vashon Island, including Sichuan pepper trees, which he’d found at a local nursery in 4-inch pots. Those trees are now about 12 feet tall and produce well, but they aren’t for the faint of heart. Timmermeister reports that they’re “shrubby, not pretty, and they have the worst, nasty thorns.” At the end of summer, he makes raspberry-Sichuan pepper ice cream for his Kurt Farm Shop on Capitol Hill by steeping cream from his Jersey cows with the Sichuan pepper he picks from his trees and adding raspberries from his farm.
Award-winning chef, author and restaurateur Jerry Traunfeld is a longtime fan of Chinese cuisine. The logo at Lionhead, his culinary temple to Sichuan cuisine on Capitol Hill, is a stylized Sichuan peppercorn — it was its fragrance Traunfeld first fell in love with.
Most Read Stories
Ramzi Madbak, chef de cuisine at Lionhead, loves the numbing effect of Sichuan pepper, which he likens to “the electric shock you get when you bump your elbow.” And then, “It awakens your palate … numbs the feeling but not your…