Sichuan peppercorns revealed: why they are numbing and the best places in Chengdu to get them
Travelling through China’s southwest province, we uncover the truth behind this extraordinary ingredient (it’s actually a berry), and search Chengdu for the ultimate in ma la
One of the countless extraordinary ingredients and spices indigenous to China, hua jiao, or Sichuan peppercorn has become a favourite. from the hipster enclaves of Brooklyn and Shoreditch to Michelin-starred restaurants and domestic kitchens the world over, they’ve become a must-have ingredient for their famously numbing properties, believed to be caused by the molecule, hydroxy-alpha sanshool.
Culinary scientist Harold McGee gives an evocative description of the peppercorns’ effect in his book, On Food and Cooking. “They produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue).”
My trip to Sichuan province’s capital Chengdu, which included a visit to a hua jiao producing village a couple of hundred kilometres to the city’s east, revealed their story.
While hua jiao is indigenous to Sichuan, it’s also grown in northern provinces including Shanxi and Shandong.
Hua jiao are actually citrus berries – not peppercorns – the fruit of the prickly ash tree. As such, they were banned by the US Food and Drug Administration until 2005 for fear that they bore citrus canker that could affect the nation’s vast citrus industry.
Its name translates as “flower pepper” – from its appearance when dried. There are red and green peppercorns. It’s a common misconception that the red and green types are the same berry at different stages of maturity. In fact, their molecular structures are different as are the numbing quality, aroma and taste.
Chef Li Tok-fan is originally from Hong Kong, but has spent years in Chengdu. Heis executive chef at the city’s Shangri-La Hotel. He describes the difference.
“The red pepper is hotter, a stronger flavour which works well for hot pots and dishes such as poached Sichuan beef. The green pepper is a bit lighter and goes especially well with seafood.”
Hua jiao has moved beyond Sichuan and pan-Chinese dishes and is featured in contemporary American and European cuisine. It can even be seen in Belgian ales, lagers and countless cocktails, such as the Sichuan Negroni.
That drink can be found at Chengdu’s elegant Temple House hotel, where French chef Jerome Merlo oversees The Temple Café.
“My first encounter [with hua jiao] was working at Chateau de Montvillargenne north of Paris, where the chef made a Sichuan pepper cream to go with swordfish,” says Merlo. “I found it very strange. Now I love it, especially as my wife is from Chongqing. It’s great to combine with other flavours, for example in Sichuan pepper and pumpkin crème brûlée. It lifts it, and gives roundness and citrus notes.”
The word that most frequently defines Sichuan cuisine is “ma la”, joining the numbing “ma” to the heat of chilli, “la”, but the region’s cuisine is far more complex – and calling it “spicy” doesn’t do it justice.
My visit coincided with prime cherry season, while apricots, lychees, loquat fruit and peach apples were also on sale in every market. The love of fruit has proved a challenge for hua jiao. Fruit is more lucrative and much less labour-intensive than peppercorns, which have to be painstakingly harvested by hand.
My pilgrimage to the peppercorns’ source was led by Jordan Porter and Jiang Yao from Chengdu Food Tours. Once off the smaller regional roads of Lezhi County, the countryside and people share a tangible sense of innocence and curiosity as breathtaking landscapes of gently rolling green hills and huge ponds covered in lotus flowers provide an intoxicating backdrop.
When we arrive, a beautiful sight greets us: scores of small green prickly ash trees, growing on either side of the one-track road. Up close, it quickly becomes clear where the “prickly” part of the name comes from, as they are covered in serious thorns.
Plucked from the stem and eaten, the effect of one tiny berry is nothing short of extraordinary. Waves of numbness lasting a full 10 minutes show their remarkable potency when fresh. They are also fruity and lemony, with hints of juniper and pine.
When hand-picked at harvest time towards the end of summer, the green berries are either removed and dried or left on the stem. The leaves can be deep-fried as a snack. In common with most spices, they lose their potency over time, but when kept well they last for months – especially when mixed with chilli peppers to make la jiao oil.
Noticeable by its absence up in the sleepy hills of Lezhi is any commercialisation of hua jiao. There are no stores, no roadside stalls, no restaurants hawking it. After the sometimes rampant consumerism of Chengdu, it’s a relief – and a pleasure.
If you want to buy Hua jiao, look for a brown-red colour or vibrant green, with whole pods for fresh ones. For the more common dried version, ensure there is no filler of stalks or seeds. The aroma should be striking, even from a distance. It’s worth noting that a lot of hua jiao, especially outside China, is sterilised and can taste medicinal.
Back in Chengdu, our culinary journey begins.
Grandma Yan’s is a legendary hole-in-the-wall takeaway joint selling guo kui – flatbread cut open and stuffed with meat, vegetables or sweet fillings before being baked or fried. The permanent queue outside proves her reputation. She started out with a cart and now oversees the making of more than 1,500 flatbreads a day, taking payment and giving change from a bucket, using tongs to handle money.
The array of fillings includes snout, pig’s ear, bamboo shoot or fresh beef. The beef is steeped in a spoonful of fresh home-made sauce, singing with both ma and la, before pickled shards of carrot are added with sugar, MSG, salt, sesame oil, soy sauce, spring onions and additional ground hua jiao. Mixed in a bowl, it’s then eased into warm bread hot from the oven. Sensational.
Tian shui mian translates as “sweet water noodles” and are another Chengdu favourite. Opposite the Wenshu Monastery sits Zhang Lao Er Tian Shui Mian, which sells sesame paste, oil, vinegar, various bean-based sauces and, of course, ground hua jiao. The cold noodles are the thickest I’ve ever seen, chewy and substantial, the perfect platform for the heady mix of spices. The sugar is definitely pronounced, but it works well in contrast to the heat and numbing effect.
Another favourite Chengdu street snack is rabbit head steeped in ma la. At a stall also selling a mind-boggling array of pickles, toads, meat and assorted offal, you’re given disposable gloves to eat the boney snack. It’s not for the squeamish, but you’re rewarded for your persistence with sensational gamey meat lifted by the spice and numbness of the sticky slick of oil.
There are thousands of eating options in Chengdu, with another featuring guo kui that – whisper it – are even better than Grandma’s. At Yan Tai Po Guo Kui, a long thin roll of pastry is slapped and packed on both sides with minced pork full of ground hua jiao and other spices, before being fried until flaky and crispy. This Brit considers it the world’s greatest sausage roll.
The denouement comes at Ming Ting Restaurant, a heaving place where tables groan under an array of dishes and scores of chefs work in a sweltering kitchen behind. You have to pity the guy chopping red chillies all day. Ma po tofu is rightly a Sichuan classic and here at the source, the ma la is on overload. The dish is made extra decadent and creamy with the addition of lamb brains.
Of course, dan dan mian is arguably the other most famous dish from Chengdu … but many locals say it’s really only for the tourists.