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Sichuan peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns
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Sichuan pepper, Szechwan pepper or Szechuan pepper, a common spice used in Asian cuisine. The botanical name comes from the Greek xanthon xylon, meaning "blond wood." It refers to the brightly coloured sapwood possessed by several of the species. The genus belongs in the rue or citrus family, and, despite its name, is not closely related to either black pepper or chili pepper.

The husk or hull (pericarp) around the seeds may be used whole, especially in Szechuan cuisine, and the finely ground powder is one of the blended ingredients for the five-spice powder. It is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. The pericarp is the part that is most often used, but the leaves of various species are used as well in some regions of China.

Another cousin native to China is Zanthoxylum schinifolium, used as spice in Hebei. Yet another Zanthoxylum species provides the African spice uzazi. Because all 250 or so species of the genus seem to possess at least some of the aromatic and complex chemicals that enliven food, it is likely that most Zanthoxylum species have been used at some time as a spice.

While the exact flavour and composition of different species from the Zanthoxylum genus varies, the same essential characteristics are present to some degree in most of them. Thus, while the terms "Sichuan pepper" and "sansho" may refer specifically to Z. simulans and Z. piperitum, respectively, the most commonly used varieties of the pepper (such as these two) are interchangeable in most cases. Outside scientific literature, it is common to see the names used interchangeably or as blanket terms for whichever particular species of pepper is available.

Related species are used in the cuisines of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand and the Konkani and Toba Batak peoples. In Bhutan this pepper is known as 'thinge' and is used liberally in preparation of soups, gruels and phaag sha paa (pork slices).

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 that sets the stage for hot spices. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, second edition, p429 they are not simply pungent; "they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion."

One of the popular ingredients of East Asian cooking, the peppers are indeed one of the richest sources of essential oils, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.

Unlike other pepper verities, Sichuan pepper contains unique essential oils, which give them special citrus-flavor with biting pungent sense. Their aromatic flavor comes from terpenes such as ß-myrcene, limonene, geraniol, linalool, cineol, citronellal, and dipentene; whereas, their hotness property is due to certain alkamides embedded in their outer shell.

Like black peppercorns, szechuan peppers also aid in the digestion power by increasing gastro-intestinal juice in the gut.

Szechuan peppers are an also good source of vitamins such as vitamin A, carotenes, pyridoxine, and thiamin and minerals like copper, potassium, iron, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.

Native North Americans use the ground bark of Szechuan plant as a remedy for toothache.

Like in anise, these peppercorns too found application in traditional medicines as stomachic, anti-septic, anti-spasmodic, carminative, digestive, expectorant, stimulant and tonic. (Medical disclaimer).

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