If you could only name one ingredient that seems to be the most unique and important to China, a good choice would be the Sichuan peppercorn, sometimes also called prickly ash, or huajiao (花椒, hūajiāo) in Chinese. A favorite ingredients for people taking our cooking classes, the huajiao is so special because of its ability to give the mouth a tingly feeling like putting your tongue on a 9 volt battery.
The huajiao is actually not a pepper at all. It’s neither related to chili peppers or the black pepper used as a condiment. Instead it is a member of the citrus family, more closely related to the lemon tree!
Huajiao grow on a bush in a warm, dry climate. They don’t tolerate cold well. They are then harvested when the shell is a light purple. The seed inside is discarded because it has a grainy, sand-like texture and only the outer shell is eaten.
The peppercorn has an ancient history in China. It is said that the name huajiao, meaning flower pepper, was given by the Farm God, who was visiting earth and was so impressed by a classic, home cooked meal by a young, hardworking couple that he gave the Sichuan peppercorn each of their first names: from the wife Huaxiu (花秀) and the husband Jiao’er (椒儿).
The huajiao is used extensively in Sichuanese cooking and the cuisines of the areas that surround it. The way the Sichuanese combine the huajiao with dried chili peppers makes a “numbing-hot” combination that the Chinese call mala (麻辣,). In today’s China, this flavor is so popular that you can find mala food or snacks in any store. It’s also one of the main ingredients in five-spice powder.
The Sichuan peppercorn has uses in Chinese traditional medicine as well. The pepper is considered a heating substance (on the yang side of the yin-yang), and can dry stool.
Some of the most popular dishes from China are mala and use lots of huajiao. People who take our classes also love to prepare many of these Sichuan recipes such as Kung Pao Chicken, Mapo Tofu, Sichuan Boiled Fish, Hand-Torn Cabbage and Fish-Fragrant Eggplant.
Have you had huajiao before? What do you think? Do you remember the first time they turned your mouth numb? Let us know in the comments!