Pepper, the most widely used and traded spice in the world has a history that’s as pungent and spicy as its flavor. Countries have been discovered, conquered, wars have been fought, treaties have been signed and entire populations have been subjugated in the search for this Black Magic spice. In medieval Europe, pepper was so treasured that it was even used as currency.
In medieval times, spices like pepper were used to enhance the preservation of meat though it was by no means the only preservative that was used. Pepper’s mild yet aromatic taste was much cherished by civilizations ranging from the ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese to modern American and Asian. Originating in the Malabar coast of India and in Sarawak, there are many different varieties and cultivars which are prized for their distinctive flavors and colors.
Sichuan or Schezwan Pepper is strangely enough, not a true pepper. This spice which is a very common ingredient in Asian cooking belongs in fact to the citrus family and its seeds are discarded while the husks are dried and powdered and used in cooking. It is a berry which has a prickly outer husk and grows extensively in the mountain regions of Sichuan in Southwestern China. The plant is a hardy perennial which thrives throughout the year with very little care. The cuisine of the Sichuan region is known to be pungent, spicy and colorful cuisine, redolent with meats, sauces and garlic. Sichuan pepper is an essential ingredient in the famous Five-Spice Powder used in Chinese cuisine. Some cultures like the Japanese also use the leaves of the plant to add a distinctive flavor. Sichuan pepper oil is also used in cooking to add flavor to dishes. The undried berries are also used in Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese food extensively since this region does not support much farming or cultivation and not many spices are available. In the west coast of India, it is used in Konkani cuisine. In Indonesian cuisine, the peppers are ground to a paste with other ingredients and used as an accompaniment to various meat dishes. Their piquant, citrusy flavor which creates a unique tingling numbness in the mouth, goes well with heavy preparations and makes them a good ingredient in sauces and gravy bases. Sichuan pepper also has a reputation for being able to mask foul odors and flavors and in some regions, old or rotten meats are often disguised with the strong flavor of this spice.
These peppers are one of the items used in Chinese medicine. The Sichuan pepper is packed with essential oils, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Vitamin A, carotene and thiamine, copper, potassium, magnesium, selenium and zinc are some of the valuable components of this spice. Sichuan pepper is a proven aid in digestion and Native Americans use the bark of the plant to cure toothache.
This delightful, aromatic and pungent spice adds that extra zing to any kind of Asian food.