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Apr 29, 2010 12:17 PM

Birmingham Szechuan peppercorns

I made a beef stir-fry last night using the Szechuan (Sichuan, if you prefer) peppercorns from our local Penzy's store in downtown Homewood. They had a nice burn, and slightly numbed my lips.
Has anyone seen them at any of the local Asian markets?

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  1. Yeah but the Penzy's ones are much better. The others (ie Red Pearl) are cheaper but are less ma la and have lots of husks. Cheap though ...

    9 Replies
    1. re: Dax

      Yeah, at Penzy's they're $2.35 for one of those small, 1/4 cup jars and (for a better deal) $5.49 for a 4-ounce bag. I like being able to buy smaller quantities there, keeping the spices and herbs fresher and in manageable containers. But you pay for it. I buy the 4-ounce bags for spices and herbs I use frequently, such as basil, cumin, coriander and oregano.

      1. re: Dax

        Dax and B'Diddy,
        I believe that the husks are where the flavor and "numbingness" come from....In other words, you WANT the husks. From Wikipedia (see references):

        "Only the husks contain the active ingredients causing the lemony flavour and tongue-numbing phenomenon".

        "Recipes often suggest lightly toasting and then crushing the tiny seedpods before adding them to food. Only the husks are used; the shiny black seeds are discarded or ignored as they have a very gritty sand-like texture."

        I bought my last two bags from Super Oriental Market and they were excellent. I think it's reasonable to suspect that their sichuan peppercorn inventory turns over faster than Penzy's and is hopefully therefore fresher.

        You can also buy sichuan peppercorn oil which has the same effect. This stuff is what got us through the temporary ban related to some fungal organism or something that the US Govt thought was coming in on the peppercorn in the early 2000s. See attached image...a picture of our bottle of Sichuan Pepporcorn Oil.

        1. re: curej

          Red Pearl uses the sichuan peppercorn oil in the beef "tender" (tendon). It really adds a zing to the dish, along with a slightly astringent flavor.

          1. re: curej

            curej, where did you buy that oil?

            1. re: Ms. Finiky

              The oil is for sale at the Super Oriental Market on West Valley (the market where the Red Pearl restaurant is located). Don't recall the cost, but it was reasonably priced.

              1. re: Ms. Finiky

                Super Oriental Market (store where Red Pearl is on West Valley).

              2. re: curej

                I find most of Penzey's spices to be incredibly fresh and have never had a problem with them. The sichuan peppercorns found in places like Red Pearl were also packaged some time back so doubt they will be much fresher. I use the seeds and husks, typically toasting and crushing them to eliminate grittiness although sometimes I like the whole peppercorns too. I find the Penzey's ones to have more zing

                1. re: Dax

                  Not to beat this to death, and I don't want to seem obnoxious, but I looked up Sichuan Peppercorns in Fuschia Dunlop's book. She also notes not using the seeds. But if you like 'em, go for it. I chew un-popped popcorn kernels (and crack my teeth), so who am I to say? I use Sichuan Peppercorns very sparingly, so I think I'm looking for a more subtle effect than you power users enjoy anyway. Maybe that's why I'm satisfied with the "cheap" peppercorns from SOM. Anyway....You say tomato, I say tomahto.

                  1. re: curej

                    I should have clarified when I wrote sometimes I like the whole seeds is that sometimes (ie dry fried green beans with pork) I just toss in a handfull of the seeds/husks instead of grinding them.

                    Anyway, are you referring to Land of Plenty? I now note that she says the husks are best but did not see where she wrote do not use the seeds. She specifically notes also that "The quality of the Sichuan pepper sold in Chinese supermarkets is so poor in comparison (to fresh peppercorns) that it's hardly worth using." (pg 74).

                    She further suggests that one of the best methods for trying out the taste is to chew a single husk 1-2 times only and to see where that leads. I just did a taste test and the Penzey husk was stronger and more numbing than the ones I got from Red Pearl (both from sealed containers). Note the Penzey's ones are mostly husks too; I was wrong with my "more seeds statement."

                    There are threads on Chowhound general topics (where this further discussion should go) and home cooking boards with arguments for and against using/grinding the whole peppercorns too. So far the husk comments seem more pro than con so I will have to grind only the husks to try too on your suggestion. Thanks for the heads up and it's good to be wrong sometimes.

            2. I too have found that Penzy's Szechuan peppercorns are far superior to the one can I bought in an Asian supermarket, and much more on par with the ma la sensation that you get from good Szechuan restaurants.

              While we're talking about them, do y'all typically toast them or use them raw?

              1 Reply
              1. re: bryantuga

                I've got them loaded into a separate pepper mill and fresh-grind them onto the food -- during cooking and a little at the end.