Sichuan Pepper Guide: 15 Things to Know & How to Grow


If you’ve ever had Sichuan peppercorns, you know that there’s nothing else like their taste and unique mouth-numbing properties. These peppercorns may be small, but their sweet citrus flavor and the electric sensation they leave on your tongue pack a mighty punch.

Sichuan pepper, also known as Szechuan pepper, is a fruit native to the Sichuan province of China. It has a citrusy taste and unique tongue-numbing quality that makes it a marvelous addition to any cooking style. There are over 100 varieties available, and you can buy them at Asian markets.

If you’re curious about Sichuan peppercorns, we have you covered. We’ll be investigating Sichuan pepper’s origins and discussing what they taste like. We’ll also let you know how to use them and walk you through the steps of cultivating Sichuan pepper trees at home, so let’s get into why Sichuan peppers are among the most unique, popular, and delicious peppers globally.

Red Sichuan peppercorns being held in two palm-up hands against a white backdrop
Photo by Namowen

What Is Sichuan Pepper?

Sichuan pepper — formerly called Szechuan pepper by westerners — is a small berry that grows on some ash tree varieties native to western China and the surrounding area. Sichuan peppercorns come from the prickly ash plant, a tree related to rue, curry trees, and citrus plants. Sichuan peppercorns’ edible part is the red husk surrounding the seed-like berry. The inner seed is much harder to chew and has a chalkier consistency than the husks.

Sichuan goes by many names, including Sichuan, Szechuan, Hua Jiao, and Teng Jiao. There are over 100 varieties of the Sichuan pepper tree, and many of them bear peppercorns with various flavor intensities. The most popular varieties are the Chinese Sichuan and the Japanese Sichuan because both peppercorn trees have very flavorful and fragrant fruits.

Sichuan peppercorns belong to a plant family called Zanthoxylum Rutaceae. Other members of this family include all varieties of citrus fruits, curry trees, and rue. Sichuan peppers have a citrusy, herbal taste that is like no other.

The Sichuan peppercorn husks add a spicy, peppery, citrusy taste to a wide range of dishes. They’re usually either powdered, added to salt, and used as a table spice, or left whole and used to season stews, soups, sauces, noodles, and much more. Sichuan pepper usually smells like lavender, lemongrass, or oranges. When you eat Sichuan peppercorns, the first taste is bitter. Then, it’ll numb your tongue before tasting fresh and citrusy.

Where Does Sichuan Pepper Come From?

You may be surprised to learn that Sichuan pepper isn’t a pepper at all. Sichuan peppercorns are berries that grow on certain species of ash trees. Unlike black pepper, which is native to India, and chili peppers, which are native to North and South America, Sichuan pepper is native to China and Taiwan.

They get the name “Sichuan” because they’re commonly grown in China’s Sichuan province in central-western China. Sichuan peppercorns are used in many traditional dishes in the Sichuan province, including kung pao chicken, bang bang chicken, Chongqing hotpots, chili sauces, etc. Sichuan peppercorns are also commonly grown and eaten in Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Japan, Bhutan, and northern India.

Is It Sichuan or Szechuan Peppercorns? Is There a Difference?

There’s no difference between Sichuan peppercorns and Szechuan peppercorns. Sichuan and Szechuan are two different names for the same plant. Sichuan is the correct name for these peppercorns since it’s the name of the Chinese province where these trees natively grow.

The name Szechuan is an English transliteration of the word Sichuan. The word Szechuan was first used in the 1860s and 1870s when two botanists named Henry Hance and Charles Maximowicz took a survey of all of the plants that grew in the Sichuan province. When the botanists recorded information about the Sichuan peppercorn, they likely just spelled “Sichuan” wrong, calling it Szechuan instead.

The word Szechuan stuck around for many years. Many people began to use it in the 1960s because the USDA banned Sichuan peppercorns’ importation to America between 1964 and 2005.

That’s because the USDA thought that Sichuan peppers could spread a citrus disease called citrus canker, a bacterial infection that spreads between citrus plants. They eventually lifted the ban in 2005 under the requirement that all exported Sichuan peppercorns be heat-treated to kill any possible citrus diseases.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4) x
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)

During the ban, exporting and selling Sichuan peppercorns under the name Szechuan pepper became a way for Chinese exporters to get the peppercorns into America for sale. Because the ban is now over, and since the proper Chinese name of these peppercorns is Sichuan, people have stopped using the word Szechuan. However, some people still use the two terms interchangeably.

Are Sichuan Peppercorns Spicy?

Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy, but they do have some unique flavors that make many people think that these berries are peppercorns. Since Sichuan peppercorns aren’t even remotely related to chili peppers or black pepper, they have a unique taste that’s not spicy. Some people think they are spicy because of a numbing sensation in the mouth that occurs when eating them.

Sichuan peppercorns are still called peppercorns because they have a unique property that’ll numb your tongue, lips, and mouth, making them a bit like pepper.

Many people compare eating Sichuan peppercorns to tasting battery acid or feeling pins and needles on your tongue. While they’re not hot or spicy, the mouth-numbing effects are similar to that of capsaicin, the component in chili peppers that makes them spicy.

What Do Sichuan Peppercorns Taste Like?

Sichuan peppercorns are related to citrus, curry, and rue, giving them a similar, sweet, acidic taste. Although your tongue will go numb when you eat them, you’ll still be able to taste the citrusy, aromatic flavor, which is both sweet and bitter, like a lemon, grapefruit, or orange.

Because Sichuan peppercorns are abundantly flavorful and produce a unique tongue-tingling sensation, a little bit goes a long way. They add tons of flavor to any dish you put them in. Sichuan peppercorns don’t dull other foods’ tastes but enhance them instead. So, adding Sichuan peppercorns to your cooking may make savory, sweet, and fresh flavors taste even better while still adding a sweet, citrusy flavor to your cooking.

Why Do Sichuan Peppercorns Make Your Lips and Mouth Numb?

Sichuan peppercorns are famous for their mouth-numbing abilities. When you eat a Sichuan peppercorn, your tongue will start to go numb, your lips will feel rubbery and swollen, and your mouth may begin to tingle. This sensation is called paresthesia, and you can expect to feel it any time you eat Sichuan-seasoned foods.

So, what makes Sichuan peppercorns so numbing? Scientists believe that a molecule called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool is what gives Sichuan peppercorns their signature numbing properties. Unlike capsaicin, which is the component in chili peppers and peppercorns that gives them their unique spice, the sanshool molecule reacts with our taste buds and cells, giving anyone who eats a Sichuan peppercorn a vibrating, electrical sensation in their mouth.

The sanshool molecule in them will give your mouth a sensory overload, causing your mouth to lose feeling. So, if you want a truly unique taste and sensation, you should try Sichuan peppercorns.

What Is the Difference Between Black and Sichuan Peppercorns?

Black peppercorn, or piper nigrum, is a plant native to southern India. A black peppercorn, like Sichuan peppercorns, is a small berry. You can eat the entire fruit of a black peppercorn, which is not the case for Sichuan peppercorns.

Black pepper has a molecule in it called piperine, giving the peppercorns their spice. Piperine is an acid salt that makes black pepper.

Sichuan pepper isn’t related to black pepper, and it is native to the Sichuan province of China. Unlike black pepper, Sichuan pepper grows on trees. Sichuan peppercorns have no piperine, but they do have a unique molecule called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which gives Sichuan peppercorns their unique, mouth-numbing, mild taste. Black pepper, on the other hand, is significantly spicier than Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan peppercorns also have a fruitier flavor than black pepper, and they generally add a lot more fragrance and sweetness to any dish. While black peppercorns just taste tangy and slightly spicy, Sichuan peppercorns taste lemony and herbal. Sichuan peppercorns are also a staple in many Chinese dishes, while black pepper is a common ingredient in Indian, Mediterranean, and middle-eastern cooking.

Can You Eat Sichuan Peppercorns?

Not only can you eat Sichuan peppercorns, but they also have a pleasant, aromatic flavor and a unique mouth-numbing property that makes them like nothing else on this planet. Sichuan peppercorns are a wonderful-tasting, traditional ingredient in many Chinese dishes, although they’re common ingredients dishes from various cultures.

Moderation is best when it comes to Sichuan peppercorns. Since Sichuan peppercorns can numb your mouth, and since they have an intensely fragrant, citrusy flavor, you don’t have to use much in your cooking to get a robust and rich flavor.

A handful of red and yellow Sichuan peppercorns still attached to a green stem set against a white backdrop
Photo by Boonchuay Iamsumang

Can You Grind Sichuan Peppercorns?

Grinding Sichuan peppercorns is recommended for many reasons. Sichuan peppercorns have an intense mouth-numbing effect, and since they’re intensely flavorful, grinding the husks can diffuse the flavor and spread it evenly throughout a dish. Using powdered or ground Sichuan peppercorns makes adding just a pinch to your cooking simple, and it will give your foods just a hint of the robust flavor of the peppercorns.

Still, you don’t have to grind them up to use them. Suppose you don’t grind your Sichuan up. In that case, you may want to remove whole peppercorns before eating your seasoned dish since biting down into a whole Sichuan peppercorn can produce an intense numbness and excessively citrusy, astringent flavor.

You can use a standard pepper grinder or mill to grind Sichuan peppercorns, or you can powderize them in a food processor, coffee grinder, or a mortar and pestle. It’s not difficult to grind up the husks and doing so could save you from a sensory overload when you eat them.

How To Use Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns are versatile and are a staple in many traditional Chinese dishes. Before eating or crushing Sichuan peppercorns, heat them to soften them and release their flavor. You can heat them in oil to give cooking oils more flavor and Sichuan peppercorns’ signature taste.

You can also use Sichuan peppercorns to make sauces, including chili sauce and hot sauce. When combined with spicier peppers such as chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns are the perfect match. Because Sichuan peppercorns will numb your tongue and add a sweet, citrusy flavor to whatever you’re cooking, they can help make the flavor of very spicy peppers more pleasant and exciting.

Sichuan peppercorns are a necessary ingredient in dishes such as:

  • Kung pao chicken
  • Mapo doufu
  • Sichuan soup
  • Dan Dan noodles
  • Chongqing hotpots
  • Kou Shui chicken
  • Suanla Chaozhou dumplings

They’re also often used in:

  • Stir-fries
  • Chili sauces
  • Noodle soup dishes
  • Seasoned beef
  • Chicken glazes

Sichuan peppercorns can add a unique flavor to vegetables and tofu. They can also make an excellent ingredient in marinades.

Sichuan peppercorns are also ground up and added to salt to make seasoned table salt. The powdered peppercorns can also be stored as a kitchen spice and added to salads, noodles, rice, soups, stews, meat, and more. You can also mix Sichuan pepper with mayonnaise for a unique and delicious spicy mayo.

Powdered Sichuan peppercorns are also a popular ingredient in fried foods, such as chicken, tofu, and vegetables. Just add a dash of Sichuan to the batter for your fried foods and enjoy the complex taste.

How Long Do Sichuan Peppercorns Last?

When properly stored, Sichuan peppercorns are at their best quality for up to four years. Sichuan peppercorns can last even longer, but they lose some of their numbing capacities and flavor the longer you let them sit. The more color your peppercorns have, the more flavorful they’ll usually be. When left to sit, they will gradually turn brown.

If you want your Sichuan peppercorns to last as long as possible:

  • Store them in an airtight container, preferably in a glass jar or in an airtight plastic container.
  • Keep them in a dark, cool place, and don’t allow them to get humid or warm.
  • Keep your peppercorns away from sunlight at all costs since the sun will heat the peppercorns, causing them to lose some of their oils and dry out.

Where Can You Buy Sichuan Peppercorns?

Sichuan peppercorns are widely available at most Asian food markets and in stores that specialize in providing spices from world cuisines. Since Sichuan peppers are Chinese, you would likely find them at any Chinese food market or any store that offers a section with Chinese cooking spices.

Some general supermarkets may offer Sichuan peppercorns, so you may want to check your local grocery store before going to the Chinese or Asian supermarket. You can also usually find Sichuan peppercorns at most health food stores and international grocers. You can also find them online very easily. Sichuan peppercorns are also frequently sold online at stores like The Mala Market, and they’re also available at TastePadThai Sichuan Peppercorns on Amazon.

Are Sichuan Peppercorns Bad for You?

Sichuan peppercorns aren’t only tasty, but they offer many health benefits. Sichuan pepper contains many healthy terpenes, vitamins, and minerals that support digestive, circulatory, and inflammatory systems in humans. Sichuan peppercorns contain the terpenes limonene and myrcene, which help reduce inflammation and contribute to cancer prevention.

Sichuan peppers also contain vitamins A and K, which contribute to bone health, lower the risk of developing cancer, support eye health, and contribute to a healthy circulatory system. You’ll also get potassium, selenium, and zinc, all of which support a healthy electrolyte balance, help you maintain a healthy circulatory system, contribute to heart health, and support healthy vision.

Sichuan peppers are also used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat digestive issues, making them an excellent choice for preventing and treating heartburn, stomachaches, ulcers, acid reflux, and IBS. When it comes to Sichuan peppers, there are tons of health benefits, so adding them to your diet could be a healthy and delicious choice.

Red Sichuan peppercorns growing on a Sichuan tree
Photo by Serge Goujon

How Long Does It Take to Grow Sichuan Pepper Trees?

If you’re growing your Sichuan pepper tree, or prickly ash tree, from seed, you’ll only start to see flowers and fruits two to three years after planting your seed. If you take a cutting or propagate your Sichuan pepper tree, you may begin to see blooming and fruit production only two years after planting it. Still, if you want to start harvesting your Sichuan peppers the same year you buy your plant, you should buy a pepper plant that’s already one year old.

How To Grow Sichuan Pepper Trees: Step-by-Step Guide

If you enjoy the distinct taste of Sichuan pepper, you may want to grow your own tree at home. Growing your own Sichuan pepper is a fun, simple experience, and it’ll ensure that you always have plenty of your favorite peppercorns year-round.

What Do Sichuan Pepper Plants Need to Grow?

If you want to grow your own Sichuan pepper tree, also called the prickly ash tree, it’s exceedingly simple to do so. Sichuan pepper trees are incredibly hardy, and they don’t need any particular soil or watering schedules to thrive. Prickly ash trees grow best in temperate climates, and they usually grow very well through zone 5, making it feasible to produce in almost all states.

Prickly ash trees grow best when kept in full sunlight, but they can still grow in some spots with partial shade. Generally, it’s best to put your Sichuan pepper tree in an area that gets between 8 and 12 hours of sunlight a day, or if you live in a hotter climate, you may be able to get by only giving your Sichuan pepper tree 6 to 8 hours a day. Still, they need plenty of sunlight to grow quickly, so ensure your tree gets sunlight all day long.

They also need well-drained soil, so avoid overwatering your tree. The Chinese and Japanese prickly ash trees — often regarded as the best trees for growing Sichuan peppers for consumption — usually only grow in dry climates. So, you’ll need to keep your plant’s soil moist but never allow it to become muddy. Usually, it’s best to water your Sichuan pepper tree only when it starts to show signs of droughting.

Some Sichuan pepper trees grow taller than others. Chinese prickly ash trees grow to be between 13 feet (5 m) and 17 feet (5 m) tall. The Japanese variety is much smaller, usually growing to be no taller than 8 feet (2.5 m) tall, so Japanese Sichuan pepper trees do very well as container plants or potted plants.

If you plant your Japanese Sichuan pepper tree in a pot or container, make sure that the container’s diameter is at least 18 inches (47.6 cm) wide. If you plant your Sichuan plant in the soil, it may grow more extensively than a potted tree, but both will bear fruit in two to three years, regardless of the plant’s size.

Sichuan pepper trees can withstand temperatures as low as 5° F (-15° C), although they prefer temperatures higher than 40° F (5° C). Because they’re so hardy, you can usually leave Sichuan pepper trees outside during the winter, and you can even sow Sichuan seeds in the fall when most Sichuan peppers are harvested.

How To Grow a Sichuan Pepper Tree from Seed

If you want to grow your own Sichuan peppercorn tree, all you need are some seeds and soil of any quality. Sichuan pepper trees grow very well in cold temperatures and average garden soil, so no matter where you live, it should be very simple to grow your own.

  1. Sow your seeds in early spring or fall. If you want your Sichuan pepper tree to mature by the time the weather warms up, sow your seeds in early spring or fall. Plant them in seed starter pots, like YHOME MALL Round Plant Starter Peat Pots, inside near a window or under a grow light.
  2. Plant your seeds. Fill your seed starter pots with dirt of any quality, preferably potting soil, and place your Sichuan tree seed just beneath the soil’s surface, covering it with a thin layer.
  3. Keep the soil moist. Use a spray bottle or a light trickle of water to keep your seeds moist.
  4. Water your seedling every day. Use a light mist or trickle of water to keep your seedling’s soil moist, but never overwater it.
  5. Transplant. Your seedling may be ready to transplant three weeks after sowing or when its roots begin to climb outside of the starter pot. When you transplant, ensure that your tree will have access to 8 hours to 12 hours of sunlight every day.
  6. Water when the leaves start to droop. Since Sichuan pepper trees are prone to overwatering and root rot, only water your tree when the soil is fully dry or when your plant starts to show signs of drought. It’s usually best to soak your plant’s soil only when the leaves begin to droop.
  7. Prune in autumn. During the autumn season, your Sichuan pepper tree may need some pruning. Only remove the branches that are dead or have no leaves on them.

Your pepper tree will start to grow flowers two to three years after sowing it, and once it starts to bloom between early spring to midsummer, you can expect to see a harvest of Sichuan peppercorns in the autumn.

How To Harvest Sichuan Peppercorns

Once your Sichuan pepper tree has produced peppercorns, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of harvesting that you need to do. If you want to make harvesting easy, you may want to follow some of these pro tips:

  • Use a tarp. When you harvest your peppercorns, if you place a tarp beneath your Sichuan tree, all you have to do is gently shake the branches and collect the peppercorns on the tarp.
  • Dry the peppercorns. Before removing the thin pink husk from your peppercorns, you’ll want to leave them out to dry on a screen, on a baking sheet, or spread over a towel. Leave the peppercorns to dry for several days before removing the husks.
  • Remove the dark inner seed. Sichuan peppercorns’ edible part is the pinkish or green husk that surrounds the much harder seed inside. To collect the edible husks, peel them off the dry seeds and store them in an airtight container. To make this easy, put your dried seeds in a container with water, then massage the husks off the seeds, allowing them to float. Let the husks dry again and store them in an airtight container.

Closing Thoughts

Sichuan peppers are one of a kind with their mild yet electrifying properties and fragrant, sweet, citrusy taste. Sichuan peppercorns are simply irreplaceable, and they’re an essential ingredient in many Asian cuisines. Adding a bit of Sichuan to your cooking can give your food a delicious, complex, and intense flavor, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t keep Sichuan peppercorns in your pantry at all times.

Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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