6 Things You Need To Know About Szechuan Peppers (+ 21 Great Recipes)

Szechuan cooking is spicy, yes. But don’t lay that on the Szechuan peppercorns. They’re not spicy hot. What they are is a culinary experience like no other.

Say it with Szechuan pepper

Photo by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons

Six things to know about Szechuan pepper before you give it a go.

1.) Szechuan pepper is not spicy hot like a chile pepper. It’s not a chile pepper at all, in fact.

2.) It’s not peppercorny in any kind of black or white peppercorn way. It’s not actually from a pepper plant.

3.) The “peppercorns” are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush. Yes, Szechuan pepper is its own funky little monkey, thank you very much.

4.) You experience Szechuan pepper as a peculiar tingling sensation. Food-science guy, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, equates the sensation to a mild electrical shock: “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue.” So, you know, don’t eat Szechuan while taking a bath.

5.) When eating Szechuan pepper, you may feel a bit…well, odd. Harold McGee says the pepper seems to mess with different types of nerve endings simultaneously, inducing “sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive,” and leaving you with an overall experience that could “cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” That sounds troubling. But the feeling is actually kind of invigorating. It’s a strange, kind of exciting combo. Pop rocks in the mouth! Tingling tongues are primed for the spicy heat of the actual chile peppers.

6.) Szechuan pepper is a key component of Chinese Five Spice. This spice blend is a good entrée into the world of Szechuan pepper, mingled as it is among friends. What are the other four spices? Fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves.

OK, now let’s dig into some recipes. Some call for full-on Szechuan peppercorns. Others call for Chinese Five Spice, which, because it’s a blend of spices, may not reveal the full funkiness of the Szechuan pepper. But it’s a tasty, tingly introduction.

1.) Chinese Spareribs

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Chinese Spareribs

Photo by eriko

2.) Hunan Kung Pao

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Hunan Kung Pao

Photo by DIZ

3.) Cao Lau (Vietnamese Noodle Bowl)

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Cao Lau Vietnamese Noodle Bowl

Photo by lutzflcat

4.) Spiced Grapes

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Spiced Grapes

Photo by lutzflcat

5.) Fiery Pepper Chicken

6.) Glazed Carrots Asian Style

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Glazed Carrots Asian Style

Photo by CCLoves2Bake

7.) Cantonese Barbecued Pork

8.) Amber’s Sesame Chicken

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Amber's Sesame Chicken

Photo by OkinawanPrincess

9.) Five Spice Chicken

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Five Spice Chicken

Photo by Deb C

10.) Chinese Pork Tenderloin

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Chinese Pork Tenderloin

Photo by naples34102

11.) Weeknight Wonton Soup

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Weeknight Wonton Soup

Photo by Wyattdogster

12.) Spicy Pickled Okra

13.) Tsao Mi Fun (Taiwanese Fried Rice Noodles)

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Tsao Mi Fun Taiwanese Fried Rice Noodles


14.) Chinese Barbequed Spareribs

15.) Roast Duck Legs With Red Wine Sauce

16.) Grilled Five Spice Chicken

17.) Five Spice Turkey Cheeseburgers

18.) Mama’s Asian Chicken and Rice

Say it with Szechuan pepper | Mama's Asian Chicken and Rice

Photo by bellepepper

19.) Kung Pao Chicken

20.) Chef John’s Five-Spice Carrots

21.) Five-Spice Chicken Wings