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Dec 30, 2013 10:29 AM

Sichuan Peppercorns...

I'm making a recipe that calls for Sichuan peppercorns. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any where I live. Is there anything that can be
substituted for Sichuan peppercorns. Any help will be appreciated. Thanks!

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  1. I'm not sure there is anything that can replicate the mouth number qualities of Sichuan peppercorns. If you don't mind mail order, you can get them from Penzey's:

    1. Sichuan peppercorns don't contribute a major flavor so much as they provide an anesthetic effect on the tongue--that is, they make your tongue feel numb. No real substitute. As another poster points out, you could mail-order them.

      5 Replies
      1. re: LorenzoGA

        Really? I can taste a flavour, and I can smell the same flavour when I stick my nose in the bag. Sort of a pinier version of black pepper. It also has that strange effect on the tongue. Like everyone has said, there isn't really any substitute I can think of. If you don't want to order them, I'd add a bit of black pepper and accept that your dish will be missing one of its (presumably many) dimensions.

        1. re: BananaBirkLarsen

          I agree they do have a flavor--in fact I find it pleasant--but I think the numbing effect is their main reason for being.

        2. re: LorenzoGA

          I also disagree about the flavor of Szechuan Pepper.It has a very distinctive flavor that is irreplaceable in Szechuan cooking. Citrusy and vaguely piney it is hard to describe. When the spice is stale much of the aroma is lost.

          1. re: chefj

            ChefJ, just click a second time to un-recommend.

        3. Not sure where you are or where you've looked but most Asian grocers will have them.

          (And at a tenth of the price as Penzey's.)

          1 Reply
          1. re: DoobieWah

            Yes, but after buying them recently from penzeys I will never go back to the Asian grocer. The penzeys peppercorns are so much more flavorful!

          2. You can find Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns in most Chinese grocery stores/supermarkets. Do you have one near by? If not, you can buy them from the internet -- if you can wait.

            There isn't any real substitution for Szechuan peppercorns because it is very special. It has a "numbing/tingling" effect on your tongue.

            "Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black, white or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth "


            By the way, they look like this.


            Buy whole spice, not the ground up powder -- very important.

            52 Replies
            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              Maybe my problem is that I don't read Chinese, or maybe it never occurred to me to ask someone who does (like a store clerk!) but I can't remember ever seeing the whole version in an Asian market, only the pre-ground. Am I blind?

              1. re: Caroline1

                They are obviously whole as opposed to ground. You do not need to read Chinese.
                They are often labeled Prickly Ash

                1. re: chefj

                  Thanks. I've got several ounces of them on hand.

                  1. re: chefj

                    Agree, you usually find them labeled prickly ash in the Chinese market. Preparation was the subject of another thread:

                    In my experience the taste is distinctive, useful and necessary in many recipes. You need to toast the whole spice until fragrant in a skillet, grind in a large mortar and pestle, then strain out the tasteless gritty husk retaining the finely ground black seed which keeps fairly well.

                    1. re: dijon

                      Aren't you supposed to discard the seed and use the husk?

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              I use my Sichuan pepper in a dedicated pepper mill. I've been all over the web since this discussion started and so far I've failed to find any instructions to discard the seed(s). I've opened up my pepper mill and taken out one pepper "corn" and damned if I can find a seed in it worth taking out! I use five or six different types of pepper regularly -- black Tellecherry, Tasmanian peppercorns, white pepper, grains of paradise, Sichuan peppercorns, and long pepper. The ONLY one I don't keep in a pepper mill "at the ready" is long pepper because it is exactly what the name states: looooooong, and defies a pepper mill.

                              I suppose that for those fortunate enough to live where they can get fresh, plump, juicy Sichuan pepper, it might be worth while to spit the seeds out or remove them first, but for those of us who have to count ourselves lucky to be able to buy the dried variety, I don't think the frustration of trying to remove any seeds is going to have a flavor pay off that comes anywhere close to being worthwhile.... But... To each his/her own! I'm happy with the seeds. '-)

                              Or maybe what I'm buying ARE the husks? There is no indication either way on the packaging. Where is anyone buying them with identifiable seeds inside? Curious minds!!!

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  Good quality "Szechuan Peppercorns" are just the Husks. Only I have only seen the Seeds in one package in very many years of using them. The seed itself is fairly flavorless in comparison to the Husk.

                                  1. re: Caroline1


                                    Most of the Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns sold have the seeds removed. See the link below:


                                    The left are the seeds, and the right are the husks.

                                    You said that you buy yours from WorldSpice. As you can see from the photo, these are the husk. They are opened. The seeds have been removed:


                                    This may be a better photo (below). You can see that relatively huge black seed in left, and middle right.


                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      For people who are interested in the Szechuan pepper post-harvest process include seed removal, there is a video. I suggest you only watch from 1:40 to 3:30 min.


                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        CK, thank you for all the work! This is above and beyond, not to mention edifying. I especially enjoyed their method for seed removal. You could say they were having a bash.

                                        Now, how do I stop watching Chinese TV? I can't seem to just turn it off.... Great jokes!!! '-)

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          I am glad that you like it. It is not in English, but I think the video visual was simple to understand. I know about Szechuan pepper process by reading. This thread had me searching for one, and I am glad that I got to watch the video. A picture/video is worth thousand words.

                                          Of course, then I got really excited and opened my new bag of Szechuan peppercorn and saw some seeds in there. I spent an hour picking out the seeds -- I did it in two iterations and really removed quite a few.

                                          Just ate a bowl of wonton soup with Szechuan peppercorns. It was awesome.

                                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                            Honey Bunches (CK). you didn't pay close enough attention to the video! YOU don't hand pick the seeds out. THEY bash the blazes out of the peppercorns with an implement that looks very like a cricket bat to me, THEN they dump the bashed peppercorns into a mesh "sorter" that retains the husks while the seeds fall through.

                                            Maybe you need to buy your Sichuan pepper from World Spice ( That's where I buy mine and I NEVER get seeds or twigs or other "undesirables!" Works for me!

                                            In a silent salute to this thread, I added Sichuan peppercorns to some Mexican refried beans I made from scratch.... It adds a whole new dimension to "speecy spicy goodness"! Try it! You'll like it...! '-)

                                            My recipe:

                                            1/4 cup fat (lard or olive oil)
                                            1/2 sweet onion, diced (Vidalia onion OR yellow onion)
                                            1 tsp to tons of chile powder, to taste (Gebhardt's is a nice blend)
                                            1 tsp crushed Sichuan pepper
                                            1/2 tsp or to taste ground cumin
                                            1 garlic clove minced
                                            2 or 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro
                                            1 can any brand unflavored fat free refried beans
                                            Chicken stock, as needed
                                            Queso Fresco, or Cheddar cheese, crumbled or grated

                                            In an 8" cast iron skillet heat lard until liquid or just pour in olive oil and add onions over medium heat. Add a little salt to the onions to make them wilt faster. Do not brown the onions! When they are limp, add the spices and allow them to bloom in the hot oil. Add crushed garlic and just allow to wilt a bit. Add can of fat free unflavored refried beans and stir to incorporate. Add chicken stock to gain desired consistency. I like mine a bit on the runny side. Like a good risotto, good refried beans should not stand in a lump, but should ooze gently! Adjust seasonings to taste. At the last minute stir in cilantro. Serve hot with grated cheese melted over the top such as Mexican queso fresco (traditional) or if you want to go TexMex, cheddar will do.

                                            The advantage of "plain" fat free canned refried beans is that they are simply mashed a bit, and not refried at all and will save you the trouble of soaking beans, and all that jazz, I sometimes use regular "high fat" canned refried beans combined with a goodly amount of chicken stock to make a quick version of bean soup. If you doubt me, read the ingredients labels on some brands of fat-free refried beans,,, "Ingredients: beans."


                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                              <YOU don't hand pick the seeds out. >

                                              :) I don't have the mesh tools. I used my oxo salad spinner (yes, I really did). It sort of work. The seeds tend to go to the bottom, but far from perfect. So I had to do some manual pickings.

                                              < That's where I buy mine and I NEVER get seeds or twigs or other "undesirables!>

                                              I was a cheapo. I was at the supermarket. One Szechuan peppercorn package costs about twice as much as the other one, so I bought the cheaper one. In hindsight, I think the more expensive one looked a bit more cleaner.

                                              That is a pretty cool recipe. I got lard....etc. I didn't know unflavored fat free refried beans are just mashed up bean, but it makes sense. So this recipe is a traditional Mexican refried beans with addition of Szechuan pepper? Everything else is the same as a normal refried bean recipe?

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                I don't think you need to worry about picking them out - I don't think they add anything, but I don't think they take anything away if they're there, either. I've never ever seen seeds, just husks - but this is the first batch I've been able to find in years so maybe things have changed since the import ban was lifted ... they've been technically banned for most of my lifetime but I was able to find them occasionally anyway.

                                                Anyway that's what I was told by a Chinese friend, not to worry about picking out seeds - but I don't know how much of a cook she was, LOL!

                                                1. re: CookingForReal

                                                  :) Thanks. I know. I just thought it will be fun. I don't know if you saw the link I have earlier.


                                                  I just it is very cool, so I wanted to try out.

                                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                  Wow! Sorry for the delayed answer. Let's just say sometimes life gets in the way... '-)

                                                  Is this a traditional refried beans recipe, you ask... Let's just say I've never met two Mexican cooks who make refried beans EXACTLY the same way. On the other hand, I've never served my refried beans to anyone, Mexican or not, who hasn't had a second helping. My recipe would probably be a tad more traditional if you just leave out the Sichuan peppers and put the cilantro in your salsa. Then you'll come closer to "universal" refried beans, if there is such a thing...

                                    2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      Nice photo. This does appear to be a controversy. I've not run into husk only peppercorns in the packages I have bought although the seed is small and perhaps overlooked. Mortar and pestle seems the best way to grind, I'm looking for a better way, but the husks are resistant and get filtered out in my open mesh strainer, when I taste the resistant husk bits they are tough and have little taste compared to the grindings which filter through.

                                      1. re: dijon

                                        Again (mentioned some of this earlier in thread) I don't know of real "controversy," and after years of buying and cooking with them, this thread also is the first place I've heard of anyone so fastidious as to pointedly remove the seed kernel from these "peppercorns" (hua-jiao) at home, though I see CK was using it both in whole form and in a soup, so I can see doing that there.

                                        The several Sichuan cookbooks standard in the US have typically mentioned roasting (in a dry pan) and then grinding, especially if you want to sprinkle the spice on a dish at the end. Chiang & Schrecker (1976, 1987) made a point of how the whole spice is sometimes used in Sichuan in long-stewed dishes. Delfs, and Dunlop IIRC, generally roasted and ground them.

                                        I use a coffee grinder after pan-roasting, much easier than a mortar, which I've also used. (Afterwards, dust out the grinder with a soft brush, and wipe with paper towel moistened with rubbing alcohol to very effectively remove any numbing effects from future coffee.)

                                        None of the recipes I've cooked from bothered to separate the seed kernel from the husk (nor do most commercial packagers I've seen). Usually, kernel gets either ground to powder, or stewed to innocuoussness, so why fuss over it?

                                        In the good Sichuanese restaurants around here (we've had many of them since the original US fashion for Sichuanese food hit in the 1970s), I typically see the spice as a ground roasted powder dusting finished dishes, like mapo doufu or dàn dàn miàn.

                                        And hua jiao is a commodity household product, apt to be sold at the neighborhood mom-and-pop Chinese market in bags with confusing English euphemisms, alongside the bags of star anise and salted fermented black beans. In the later part of the so-called "ban" period -- now it can be told! -- you got them easily enough, openly, here in the San Francisco region at Chinese herb shops, which also are fairly numerous.

                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          eatz, my Sichuan pepper lives in a pepper mill and I grind as needed. While your coffee grinder method sounds very effective, the clean-up sounds daunting. I shopped around and found inexpensive pepper mills with clear acrylic bodies and metal burrs that are adjustable for fine through course grinds. I use several kinds of pepper, but only the Sichuan, grains of paradise, and Tasmanian are in see-through mills. It's super convenient and waste free. Oh, and always fresh!

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            That sounds like a creative approach! I might do it if I had the extra pepper mills.

                                            (Cleanup of electric coffee grinder, by the method I mentioned -- quick brush out, as is good practice anyway when grinding coffee, followed by alcohol wipe which picks up all the hua-jiao residue -- takes all of a few seconds, probably less time than I spend grinding.)

                                            The hua-jiao is always pan-roasted before I grind it, then stored airtight afterwards (where it keeps good quality for at least a week or two -- it gets used up before then).

                                            I only use the spice un-roasted when making stews, like the classic Sichuanese spicy beef stew, which also is a basis for beef noodle soup. (Following practices cited in the classic cookbooks I mentioned.)

                                          2. re: eatzalot

                                            Since reading about it in Fucshia Dunlop's book, I always toast and grind my peppercorns and then put them through a sieve, whether the recipe calls for ground peppercorns or not. It's not just that I don't care for the crunchiness that unground peppercorns impart to a dish, but I find the ground peppercorns disperse more readily throughout the dish, which increase the ma la effect.

                                          3. re: dijon

                                            Appreciated. Certainly, there are people who use just the husks and some people just use the seeds. The latter being a much smaller minority.

                                            <Mortar and pestle seems the best way to grind>

                                            I use mortar and pestle from time to time, but often, you can just use the whole husks without any modifications. Just to show you a few photo which the husks are not at all ground:




                                            As for the seeds themselves, they are very black. See the photo below where they are sold:


                                            Do yours look like that? They are black and very solid. They are said to be very healthy.

                                            <when I taste the resistant husk bits they are tough and have little taste>

                                            If you want to try the husks, then I would advise you just buy the husks. They are not outrageously expensive. You can buy them in stores or online. Online will be more expensive, but may be easier for some people. I can imagine the husks which come with your seeds are not representative of the typical husks. My guess is that you will find the husks to be more "powerful" than your seeds.

                                            As for how to use the Szechuan pepper (husks), there are many ways to do it. The standard method are: 1) hot oil extraction, 2) steaming, 3) boiling water, 4) stir fried and combined with ingredient....etc.

                                            P.S.: To some extent, I am surprise that you use the actual seeds because they are not easy to come by.

                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              Some people "just use the seeds?" That too is new to me in this thread.

                                              Everything I've read and experienced attributes the flavor and aroma to the husks, and the seeds are just along for the ride, and are always a minor consideration, at most. The classic cookbooks scarcely mention them.

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                Well, I am toasting and grinding another batch soon, I will try to be more observant. The photos and links, video are very good, my chinese is nil.

                                                1. re: dijon

                                                  <I will try to be more observant>
                                                  Just buy the husk (husk in a bag) and see if you like it.

                                                  <The photos and links, video are very good, my chinese is nil.>

                                                  Yeah, unfortunately it is in Chinese without subtitle, but I think the overall video more or less showed what they were doing.

                                          4. re: dijon

                                            Any sichuan restaurant I have been to I have only been served the husks.

                                    3. re: Caroline1

                                      First, maybe we have different definition of ground vs whole. The "whole" Szechuan peppercorns I am talking about are slightly processed, like these:


                                      <I can't remember ever seeing the whole version in an Asian market,>

                                      Second, this may have to do with timing. There was a time that Szechuan peppercorns were banned in US.

                                      "Even during the ban years (1968 to 2005, with the most serious crackdown near the end) those in the know found ways to get a Szechuan peppercorn supply. For those without a source, though, their relevant recipes were bleak. "


                                      "Then, in 2005, the ban was lifted altogether, at least for peppercorns heated to 170 degrees, to kill bacteria. That paved the way for something like a national Renaissance in Sichuan cuisine -- in evidence every time a mouth-tingling plate of razor clams with Szechuan peppercorn pesto is served at Manhattan's Szechuan Gourmet. "


                                      During that "banned" period, it was very difficult to buy whole Szechuan peppercorns. I remember causally asking about the peppercorns in SF Chinatown: "Do you happen to carry Szechuan peppercorns?" The owner (also clerk) looked at me for 3 seconds, and then took out a small bag from a draw under her cashier machine. It was like buying illegal drugs. :).

                                      I actually didn't even want it. I was just asking about it, but after that scenario, I felt I had to buy it.

                                      Anyway, my point is that during that "banned" period, I have only seen the ground version in open display, and it was not until the ban has lifted that I started to see the whole peppercorns in open display.

                                      Maybe this is why you didn't see any whole Szechuan peppercorns.

                                      I do find the whole Szechuan peppercorn to be a bit more potent, and certainly more tongue numbing.

                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        It probably has a great deal to do with the ban! When I first moved to Plano in 2005, I couldn't find the whole peppercorns in any of the many Asian markets in this area, and when I asked about them they just looked at me like I was crazy! But I did find some imported sansho from Japan, but it was a blend and already ground. That was not too long after I discovered World Spice, in Seattle, and when I couldn't find Sichuan peppercorns locally, I just ordered them from Seattle. I will say they are "fresher and tinglier" than my resources from the past have been. A bit pricier on some things, a bit cheaper on others, but overall I can not fault their quality on anything! When I start to run low, sounds like something to add to my 99 Ranch Market shopping list! See what can be learned on Chowhound! '-)

                                        And in case anyone is interested, World Spice is also a great source for Tasmanian pepperberries and true wasabe (wasabia japonica). They've both shot up in price over the last year or two, so I'm using them a bit sparingly. Well, not really on the wasabe. I can't make wasabe mashed potatoes without it! '-)

                                        EDIT: Actually, that's not really true. I have a fantastic "stash" of very expensive spices that I lucked out and bought when the market was down and they were VERY cheap, so I stocked up, sealed them in air free sous vide cooking pouches, and have them tucked away in the freezer. Like 14 grams of saffron... two jars of freeze dried real wasabe... I can't think of what else. Maybe that's all? Anyway, watching the market and pouncing is a good thing! '-)

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          <they just looked at me like I was crazy>

                                          No, they probably wonder if you are some kind of federal agents trying to catch them.

                                          < Maybe that's all? Anyway, watching the market and pouncing is a good thing! '-)>

                                          Ha ha ha.

                                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                            I'd be curious to know if anyone has seen fresh Sichuan peppercorns in North America. To me, nothing beats their tongue-numbing flavour sensation.

                                            1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                              By "fresh" you mean untreated with heat or radiation? I suspect it is not permitted to import them into the US.

                                                1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                                  Interesting. I have definitely never seen that in the US.

                                                  1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                                    Your best bet might be to look for them preserved in brine or pickled in a jar. I have no idea how that would be labeled.

                                                    I've (rarely) seen something called "green sichuan pepper" like this:


                                                    They are dried. I've never actually bought any because I wasn't sure (still not sure) what they actually were, and I've not seen them in person lately at all. But they may be closer to the flavor of the fresh sort.

                                                    Now I wish I had some myself. I'm on a sichuan peppercorn jag ATM.

                                                    1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                                      I've never heard of them being commercially produced in this country, but I just noticed you can buy seedlings from Richter's nursery - - wish I had the space to try one as a houseplant!

                                                  2. re: Breadcrumbs

                                                    I just realized that there is Prickly Ash Growing less than a block from my house! I am going to keep a close eye on it with hopes of harvesting some.

                                                    1. re: chefj

                                                      Now that's smart chefj, keep us posted!

                                                      1. re: chefj

                                                        I advise you not to pick the Szechuan peppercorns from your neighbor. You may get a beating.

                                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                          Don't worry I can take care of myself. I doubt they even know what the Tree is. They did not plant it.

                                                          1. re: chefj

                                                            :D In that case, I advise you to pick the Szechuan peppers on a sunny bright day, and sun-dried them for about 5-7 hours.

                                                    2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                      Hey, I have enough saffron to make a paella that will feed the entire Chinese Army!

                                                      LOL! And at 80 years old that may just be what I need to do if I'm going to use it all up before my bucket list is bucketed! '-)

                                                        1. re: sr44

                                                          Hey! You didn't mention you're a military guy! You do know I'm not talking terra cotta warriors here, don't you? '-)

                                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                                            I'm not either military nor a guy, but I'm ready to do my bit in situations of excess. Capers are my problem.

                                                            1. re: sr44

                                                              When someone doesn't use "Sally" or "JacK" as a handle on these boards, I get sooooooooopoo confused! Sorry 'bout that. Maybe the tech team can figure out a way to have a pink or blue frame around our avatars?

                                                              Meanwhile, how many bowls of paella do you think you can down at one sitting? And not to worry: no capers in my paella! '-)

                                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                                Some of the Sallys and Jacks aren't who they seem to be. I think I'm good for a bowl or 2.

                                                                My caper problem isn't that I don't like them, but that somehow I have 5 jars of them.