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Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum DC.)

botXanthoxylum piperitum
ChineseFagara, Faa jiu, Hu chiao, Hua jiao; Yan-jiao (Z. acanthopodium)
DagbanliKaloa (Zanthoxylum xanthoxyloides)
DanishSechuan Peber
DutchSechuan peper
EnglishSzetchwan pepper, Anise pepper, Sprice pepper, Sichuan pepper, Chinese pepper, Japanese pepper, (Japanese) prickly ash, Indonesian lemon pepper (Zanthoxylum acanthopodium)
EweXe, Xeti (Z. xanthoxyloides)
FanteKanfu (Z. xanthoxyloides)
FinnishSetsuanin pippuri, Anispippuri
Ga-DangmeHaatsho (Z. xanthoxyloides)
GermanSzechuan-Pfeffer, Chinesischer Pfeffer, Japanischer Pfeffer, Blütenpfeffer, Bergpfeffer, Gelbholzbaum, Anispfeffer, Indonesischer Zitronenpfeffer (Zanthoxylum acanthopodium)
FrenchPoivre du Setchuan, Poivre du Sichuan
HausaFaskori, Fasa kwari (Z. xanthoxyloides)
HindiTilfda (Zanthoxylum rhetsa), Tejbal (Z. alatum); Tambhul (Z. acanthopodium)
HungarianÁnizsbors, Kínai bors, Szecsuáni bors, Japánbors, Virágbors
IndonesianAndaliman, Intir-intir (Zanthoxylum acanthopodium)
JapaneseSansho, Sanshou; Kinome (young leaves)
KannadaKamte kai (Z. rhetsa)
KonkaniTeppal, Tippal (Z. rhetsa)
LaotianKok mak mat, Khen khua, Khen ton (Z. acanthopodium); Ton mak khen (Z. rhetsa), Mad (Zanthoxylum alatum)
MalayalamKaatmurikku (Z. rhetsa)
MarathiTirphal, Chirphal (Z. rhetsa)
NepaliTimur, Timbur (Z. alatum)
NzemaAyenle, Anyinle (Z. xanthoxyloides)
TagalogChi-it, Sibit paklauit (Z. alatum)
ThaiMa lar; Mak kak (Z. alatum); Ma kwen (Z. rhetsa)
TibetanEmma, Yerma, G-yer ma (Z. alatum or Z. acanthopodium)
TwiOkanto, Yea, Bebun (Z. xanthoxyloides)
VietnameseHat sen (Z. nitidum); Dang cay, Sen gai (Z. alatum)
Zanthoxylum piperitum: Dried Sichuan peppercorn
Dried fruits of Z. piperitum, Chinese sichuan pepper (fagara, hu jiao)

Zanthoxylum rhetsa (limonella): Indian Sichuan pepper
Dried fruits of Z. rhetsa, an North Indian relative of sichuan pepper (tilfda, tirphal, tippal)

Zanthoxylum acanthopodium: Sumatra pepper, jungle pepper
Dried fruits of Z. acanthopodium, an Indonesian relative of sichuan pepper (andaliman, intir-intir)

Used plant part
Fruit. The aroma resides in the pod, not in the seed; several books recommend to remove the seeds because they taste slightly bitter.

The spice as commercially available very often contains significant amounts of stem material, mostly the very tough and pointed thorns, which can be harmful if swallowed; it's best to remove them before usage.

In Japan, Sichuan pepper leaves are used fresh, both as a flavouring and a decoration.

Plant family
Rutaceae (citrus family).

Sensoric quality
All types of sichuan pepper have an aromatic, woodsy lemon fragrance. The taste is pungent, but needs some time to develop; it leaves a strange, almost anesthetic feeling on the tongue.

Sichuan pepper leaves have a fresh flavour somewhat in between of mint and lime.

Main constituents
The pungency of Zanthoxylum fruits is caused by a series of closely related polyunsaturated amides. Common examples are amides of 2E,6Z,8E,10E dodecatetraenoic acid, 2E,6E,8E,10E dodecatetraenoic acid, and 2E,4E,8Z,10E,12Z tetradecapentaenoic acid with isobutyl amin (known as α, β and γ sanshool, respectively) and 2-hydroxy isobutyl amin (hydroxy sanshools), which have been found in several different species of the genus. Total amide content can be as high as 3%.

The essential oil (up to 4%) of the spice as sold in Europe consists mostly of terpenes: Geraniol, linalool, cineol, citronellal; also dipentene was found. (Deutsch. Apoth-Zeit., 46, 2381, 1987)

The fruits of the Taiwanese species, Z. simulans, yielded mainly β-myrcene, limonene, 1,8-cineol and (Z)-β-ocimene. The total content of essential oil was reported to be 1.7% (steam distilliaton) and 6.4% (carbon dioxide extraction). (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 44, 1096, 1996)

The leaves of Z. sansho (Japan, identical to Z. piperitum) contain mostly monoterpene derivatives (citronellal, citronellol) and unsaturated C6 compounds (e.g., Z-3-hexenal), which contribute to a grassy odour. (Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry, 61, 491, 1997)
In unripe fruits, the content of essential oil is reported to 0.6%, with β-phellandrene (42%), d-limonene (23%) and β-pinene (11%) being the main components. Terpene alkohols (geranyl acetate, citronellol, α_terpineol) were found in the 1 to 5% range. The young leaves (0.12%) yielded mostly terpene hydrocarbons. (Nippon Nogeikakaku Kaishi, 70,1001, 1996)

Zanthoxylum alatum/armatum: Nepali sichuan pepper
Nepalese sichuan pepper (timur)
Also in the Indian species, Z. rhetsa (syn. Z. citronella), the essential oil (3.7%) has been shown to consist mainly of monoterpene derivatives: Sabinene, limonene, pinenes, para-cymene and terpinenes, furthermore the monoterpene alcohols 4-terpineol and α-terpineol. (Zeitschrift f. Lebensmitteluntersuchung und -forschung A, 206, 228, 1998)
Other literature reports for the leaf oil caryophyllene oxide (13%), caryophyllene (10%), β-copaene (5%) and spathulenol (3%) and for the seed oils sabinene (66%), α- and β-pinene (each 6%) and terpinen-4-ol (4%). Although the authors actually write "seed oil", I suspect that the work refers to the essential oil obtained from the pericarp. (Journal of essential oil research, 12, 179, 2000)

The essential oil of Z. acanthopodium consists mainly of citronellal and limonene; further components are β-myrcene, β-ocimene, linalool and E-1-decenal. (H. Wijaya, personal communication)

Z. alatum, lastly, is reported to contain mostly linalool (50%), further limonene, methyl cinnamate and cineol.

Zanthoxylum spec.: Four regional types of szechwan pepper
Four types of culinary sichuan pepper: Upper left Nepali timur (Zanthoxylum alatum), upper right Indonesian andaliman (Z. acanthopodium), lower left Indian tirphal (Z. rhetsa), lower right Chinese hu jiao (Z. piperitum) (200 dpi scan).
Within the genus, a bewildering collection of further, potentially interesting nonvolatile constituents has been identified: flavonoids, terpene alkaloids, benzophenthridine alkaloids, pyranoquinoline alkaloids, quarternary isoquinoline alkaloids, aporphyrine alkaloids and several types of lignanes.

The term "sichuan pepper" refers to a spice obtained form a group of closely related plants of genus Zanthoxylum. In Asia, most representatives of this genus are found in the Himalaya region, furthermore in Central, South, South East and East Asia. American and African Zanthoxylum species have not yet been put to culinary use.

The most important species are: Z. piperitum DC = Z. sansho (Central and Eastern China, Japan), Z. simulans Hance (China, Taiwan), Z. nitidum Roxb (DC) (China, peninsular South East Asia), Z. rhetsa Pierre var. Budranga Pier. = Z. citronella (Western North India, peninsular South East Asia) Z. armatum DC = Z. alatum Roxb. (Himalaya, peninsular South East Asia, East Asia), Z. acanthopodium DC (eastern Himalaya, China, peninsular South East Asia, Sumatra). All species mentioned are have their place in local cuisines and can be used interchangably.

Zanthoxylum is a dissimilated or probably simply false modification of Greek xanthòn xýlon, "yellow wood".

Zanthoxylum spec.: Sichuan pepper flower
Zanthoxylum flower
Botanical species names of the species mentioned above are derived either by local names (rhetsa, sansho) or are of Latin/Greek origin: piperitus from Latin piper "pepper" because of the peppery taste; simulans "imitating" from simulare "imitate" for the similarity to other species; alatus "winged" for the leaves' shape; armatus "armed", from arma" "weapon" for the mighty thorns; lastly, acanthopodius "thistle-footed" for similar reasons from Greek ákantha "thistle, thorn" and poús "foot".

The English name prickly ash refers on one side to the numerous thorns of the plant (which are even commonly found in the dried spice), on the other side to the pinnate leaves, which very much resemble those of ash (Fraxinus excelsior). English ash goes back to the Indo-European name of this tree, OS , and is, consequently, found in many Indo-European tongues (German Esche, Old Norse askr, Lithuanian úosis, Russian yasen); it must not be confused with its English homonym ash "burned material", which derives from an Indo-European verbal root HAS- "burn" and also has relatives in nearly all Indo-European languages: German Esse "chimney", Sanskrit ashanih "thunderbolt", Latin ara "altar (for fire-worshipping)", Greek azaléos "dry, inflammable".

Zanthoxylum spec.: Sichuan pepper branch
Sichuan pepper branch with fruits
The several species of sichuan pepper are widely distributed over Asia, but are not used as spice throughout the region. Sichuan pepper is most important in the cuisines of Central China and Japan, but it is also known in parts of India, the whole Himalaya region, and in selected spots in South East Asia. Its usage has, however, not spread to the most of South East Asia.

In China, sichuan pepper is part of the five spice powder (see star anis). It is most characteristic of, but not restricted to, the cooking style of Sichuan, a cool highland province in Southern China. For examples of the usage of sichuan pepper in Chinese cuisine see orange (on the Sichuanese beef stew au larm) and cassia (on the master sauce cooking technique).

The characteristic "biting" taste of Sichuan pepper makes it an indispensable spice for Sichuan cookery; if it is omitted or substituted by black pepper or chiles alone, the foods would appear flat or lifeless to any true Chinese connoisseur. In Chinese culinary theory, this type of pungency is important enough to get its own name (ma), to have a clear distinction to the type of heat provided by other hot spices. To increase the ma-ness of food at the table, sichuan pepper is often used as a condiment; for this purpose, it is often used in the form of flavoured salt (hua jiao yen). To prepare this typical Sichuan flavouring, coarse salt and dried sichuan pepper are toasted together until some smoke evolves; after cooling, both are ground together to coarse powder.

Zanthoxylum spec.: Sichuan pepper (?) fruits
Ripe sichuan pepper fruits
A similar usage is found in Japan: The popular condiment shichimi togarashi is composed of hot red chiles, sichuan pepper, tangerine or orange peel and smaller amounts of black and white sesame seed, poppy seed and see weed (nori). All components are ground together to a coarse texture; the mixture is sprimgled over noodle dishes and hotpots.

The Japanese variant of sichuan pepper (sansho, sanshou) is also used to flavour meats fried on a hot plate (sukiyaki); unfortunately, it is often substituted by the cheaper white pepper, particularily outside of Japan. Japanese sichuan pepper is mostly traded ground, and it has both a fresh, pleasant lime fragrance and a well-deveoped pungency.

In India, cooks sometimes use a plant closely related to sichuan pepper with slightly larger capsules, Z. rhetsa = Z. lemonella; its usage is restricted to India's West coast (Gujrat, Maharashtra, Goa), where it is used for fish dishes. Contrasting the Indian cooking habits, it is normally not combined with other spices since its flavour is considered fragile and gets easily lost among other spices. Chinese sichuan pepper is a fully satisfying substitute. Sichuan pepper on one of the few spices important for the cuisines of the Himalayan peoples, for example Tibetan and Bhutani cookery. Because of the unique climate, few spices can be grown in Tibet; instead, flavourings of animal origin are used, especially various types of cheese. The national dish of Tibet are momos, stuffed noodles (pasta). The most popular version of this dish, sha momo, uses a stuffing of ground beef (or yak) flavoured with sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger and onion. The noodles are steemed and served dry, together with a fiery chile sauce.

In Nepali cooking, a local species of sichuan pepper (Z. armatum = Z. alatum) us used as a spice. The dark, almost black, capsules are significantly more pungent than the Chinese ones; their scent is very strong, almost pervasive, and very spicy; it reminds more to rose than to lemon, although it lacks any sweet quality. Nepali sichuan pepper is used for curries and pickles; it's one of the most frequently used spices in the cuisine of Nepal.

Zanthoxylum acanthopodium: Sumatra pepper twig
Twig of the Indonesian relative of sichuan pepper, Z. acanthopodium
Yet another type of sichuan pepper grows wild on the Indonesian island Sumatra, where it is used as a spice by a few ethnic groups. In Indonesian cookbooks, this spice is sometimes termed "Indonesian lemon pepper", which must not be confused with the lemon-flavoured black pepper found in Western supermarkets. The spice, in Indonesia known as andaliman, is less pungent than other types of sichuan pepper and has a more intensive lime fragrance, similar to the Japanese species. It could perhaps be substituted by a mixture of Chinese or Japanese sichuan pepper plus some fresh lemon grass or better lemon myrtle leaves.

Indonesian sichuan pepper is most characteristic for the cuisine of the Batak, a formerly animistic and now Christian people inhabiting a small area in the Northern part of Sumatra. Batak food is quite hot and spicy, e.g., sangsang, bits of pork meat and innards stewed in a thick, spicy sauce containing pig's blood. See also lemon grass for Indonesian cookery in general.

On Indonesia's main island, Jawa, there is another local type of sichuan pepper in culinary use: Z. avicennae, also known as karangeang in Western Jawa. According to my sparse literature, the leaves have a coriander flavour, and the fruits remind to anis.

Excluding most Tibetan recipes, sichuan pepper is usually not cooked for a long time, but added in a late stage of the preparation. Its flavour fits well to fish and variety meats, but in larger dosage it acts anesthetically on the mucous in the mouth. Therefore, and because of possible stomach irritations, it should be used cautiously.

Zanthoxylum piperitum: Ripe fagara fruits
Ripe sichuan pepper fruits
The term "spice" is often associated with hotness and pungency; in reality, though, only few plants are suited to transmit a pungent quality to the food. Furthermore it is worth noting that the prototype of all hot spices, chile, originates from the New World and thus was not available in Europe, Asia and Africa until the 16.th century, although today, food of all continents cannot be imagined without it.

Keeping this situation in mind, the importance of black pepper as the "most pungent spice available" becomes more understandable. No other spice could have been used as an appropriate substitute: The pungency of onion, garlic and spices containing isothiocyanates (e.g., white mustard seeds or horseradish) does not sirvive cooking procedure; other spices show too little heat (grains of paradise, chaste tree) or exhibit significant bitter overtones (cubeb pepper, negro pepper). The only well-suited alternative, long pepper, was traded at even higher price than black pepper. Asian cooks, thus, resorted to fresh ginger as chief source of pungency, but this spice was not available in Europe at that time.

Also sichuan pepper cannot really be called "fiery", but it has a pungent taste, which gives way to a characteristic "numb" sensation (ma in Chinese). Thus, sichuan pepper cannot be used to prepare "hot" food. The only other spices with a similar anaestethic power are Tasmanian pepper, which additionally can provide true peppery heat, and, to a lesser extent, water pepper leaves. Water pepper seeds have a much increased pungency, and it is remarkable that this spice is not used traditionally in the cooking of any country, despite its easy availability and large distribution in Eurasia.

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Modification date: 12 Dec 2001
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