Sichuan Pepper comes in a few varieties. Contrary to what the name suggests, it doesn’t all come from Sichuan Province! Much weaker, cheaper varieties of sichuan peppercorns are grown and sold all throughout China, with prices varying by over 100%!
In addition to Sichuan Province, Sichuan Pepper grows in Shaanxi, Shandong, Guangdong and further to other parts of Asia outside China! These look very different, and taste even more different.
There are many grades and varieties, of which above we’ve taken samples of a few. Can you spot the differences? It’s not easy even to the trained eye. We can observe that the green ones look almost black and burnt on the outside. It’s their natural look, and some traders try to pass this off as more exotic. In the centre we have our traditional Red Sichuan Province Peppercorn. It tastes superior to the others as it’s the natural origin for the spice for thousands of years. The “numbness” Ma La flavour is extremely distinct, and the preferred taste for traditional cooks. On the right we have another common sichuan pepper variety: the Shaanxi province grade A. Also a good quality and commonly used in trade, colour looks similar too. Yet, it terms of taste it pales in comparison.
Here are some close ups of each:
This Green Sichuan Pepper is actually another species of sichuan pepper, Z. schinifolium. The taste is also good, but different from the traditional spice used throughout China. This green version is only used in large amounts in Hebei, China. From the outside, the colour looks almost blackish, so the price is far less than the normal red sichuan peppers.
Our finest Sichuan Province peppercorns. These sichuan peppers release a feeling like no other. In fact, they actually have some depth of flavour all by themselves – slight chilli pepper and mint flavour in addition to the “numbness”, unlike most other peppers. These are very red in colour, not green or black.
Today’s market price:
50G (1.8 OZ) HKD 66
200G (7.1 OZ) HKD 132
500G (17.6 OZ) HKD 260
1KG WHOLESALE PACK** HKD 424
Although these sichuan peppers are also grade A, they’re not from sichuan! They’re from another province in China, Shaanxi, instead. As a result, the flavour and colour are both much poorer. Even appearance wise, the Grade A in Shaanxi is not as “clean” as the Sichuan Province ones. Of course, price is also much cheaper! This is the preferred grade used by export to most parts of the world, where taste buds aren’t as picky when it comes to Sichuan Cuisine. Some traders will even go so far to dye this pepper to make it look more similar to the sichuan province one! The dye is (sometimes) natural, and hard to detect without using lab equipment.
How some traders make their goods EVEN cheaper
Sichuan Peppercorns are a very troublesome spice to farm, and naturally have seeds as well as stems that they are picked from. But, some unscrupulous traders tamper with this, and add MORE seeds and stems to make their goods cheaper. Others simply don’t bother to clean out their goods fully before sale, resulting in very poor quality. Usually buying a “Grade A” could solve this problem, but in the recent year with high prices due to high labour in China, traders have started to mix together Grade A + B and sell it as “Grade A”. It’s important to verify through photos or samples what the real grade and cleanliness is. Here are some of the items used to mix in for making cheaper goods.
Usually these aren’t added in a big way when it comes to sichuan peppers direct for sale to consumers. But they are added in industrial use, where the spice is often powdered before cooking or when the final peppercorns aren’t noticed by the consumer.