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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.

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

"I love this recipe," raves Inorto. "You must use the five-spice powder or star anise to get the true flavor."

Chinese Spareribs

Photo by eriko

2. Hunan Kung Pao

"Best tasting Kung Pao I have had," skcolmery. "Used 16 Chinese red chiles and was just right. Hot but not overwhelming. If you add the Szechuan peppercorns it will not seem so hot."

Hunan Kung Pao

Photo by DIZ

3. Cao Lau (Vietnamese Noodle Bowl)

"Cao lau is made with noodles, pork, and greens," says Michael Kuhn. "Traditionally found only in the town of Hoi An, Vietnam, this recipe approximates authentic cao lau with easier-to-find ingredients."

Cao Lau Vietnamese Noodle Bowl

Photo by lutzflcat

4. Spiced Grapes

"Sometimes simple is best," says lutzflcat. Enjoy them as an accompaniment to cheese and crackers.

Spiced Grapes

Photo by lutzflcat

5. Fiery Pepper Chicken

"This is almost exactly like the version I've found at Chinese restaurants," says Cowtessa. "As for Szechuan pepper, I've had a hard time finding it. I finally bought some from Amazon and it makes a noticeable difference."

6. Glazed Carrots Asian Style

"These were really tasty," says Linda T. "I didn't have a grill to finish these in, so I stir-fried them in the marinade on the stove top. Delicious."

Glazed Carrots Asian Style

Photo by CCLoves2Bake

7. Cantonese Barbecued Pork

"Delicious," says Kathy. "I used to drive from Kingston to Montreal's Chinatown to buy this. I am thrilled to know that I can make it myself now."

8. Amber's Sesame Chicken

"Wow! The five spice powder sauce made this fabulous," says Marvels51.

Amber's Sesame Chicken

Photo by OkinawanPrincess

9. Five Spice Chicken

"This is a terrific marinade for chicken," says Saveur. "Hubby grilled the chicken to crispy perfection! If you haven't tried five spice before, it's reminiscent of jerk seasoning, some licorice in the background."

Five Spice Chicken

Photo by Deb C

10. Chinese Pork Tenderloin

"This is a fantastic marinade," says Jess. "I also like to use it in stir-fries and just as a sauce for chicken breast. Amazing flavor!"

Chinese Pork Tenderloin

Photo by naples34102

11. Weeknight Wonton Soup

"This is a keeper for us," says misty. "Doubled the five spice, as we love it. Wonderful easy, delicious soup! Will be making often."

Weeknight Wonton Soup

Photo by Wyattdogster

12. Spicy Pickled Okra

"Great recipe," says Ghenghis. "I also use toasted mustard seeds with the Szechuan peppercorns."

13. Tsao Mi Fun (Taiwanese Fried Rice Noodles)

"This is the only and best tsao mi fun dish I've found on the web," says cluv. "I made it for dinner tonight and it was soooo good. And I am Taiwanese. I LOVE five spice powder!"

Tsao Mi Fun Taiwanese Fried Rice Noodles

Photo by MOONBERRY

14. Chinese Barbequed Spareribs

"These ribs were EXCELLENT," raves BEANS55. "Exactly, if not better than takeout."

15. Roast Duck Legs With Red Wine Sauce

"Superb, one of my favorite ways to prepare duck," says George. "Also works great on turkey thighs."

16. Grilled Five Spice Chicken

"Chinese 5-spice powder has a proven track record of awesomeness when combined with smoky, caramelized meats," says Chef John. "This grilled five-spice chicken recipe is a great example."

 

17. Five Spice Turkey Cheeseburgers

"These were AWESOME," says KychynWych. "I used a little extra 5-Spice Powder, and these were so amazingly fantastic that my husband immediately asked when we would be having them again."

18. Mama's Asian Chicken and Rice

"This had a delicious flavor, everyone loved it," says CHERIMMHMM. "Had never tried the Chinese five-spice powder but it gave it a very unique, yummy taste."

Mama's Asian Chicken and Rice

Photo by bellepepper

19. Kung Pao Chicken

"I loved this," says DR in TX. "Had all of the ingredients, EVEN the Chinese Five Spice. So delicious I will definitely make this again."

20. Chef John's Five-Spice Carrots

"These five-spice roast carrots are amazingly aromatic and delicious," says Chef John. "The ingredients are so simple. Exotic, but familiar and not too exotic."

21. Five-Spice Chicken Wings

"The Chinese five spice is not something I was very familiar with, but it was tasty," says junglepilotwife. "I used chicken breasts and we grilled them. The recipe is a nice change of pace with Asian flavors."

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About Carl Hanson

Carl will eat that. Share with him @CarlNo9 on Twitter.