On Procuring Sichuan Pepper in the SF Bay Area

aka Szechuan, Szechwan, Sichwan...

Charles kindly sent me a New York Times article about the shortgage of Sichuan pepper (hua1jiao1) in the United States. This wasn't news to me; early in 2003, I had looked for Sichuan pepper in Milpitas (at 99 Ranch) and was told that the USDA (or some other gubmint entity: see BlackContrail), had banned its import because of some pest. And while visiting the parental units in Hogtown, Florida, I located a bag of Sichuan peppercorns, but close inspection revealed the whole damn bag to be full of bugs. Experience has taught that close inspection of sloppily-packaged mainland Chinese food products always pays off. So the NYT article was no surprise, but I did learn that the "pest" is a canker which infects orange trees, and that the "pepper" comes from the prickly ash tree.

The other day I was buying groceries at the New Castro Market when I came across a box of plastic vials full of oil. I am always curious about non-obvious items in grocery markets, and this item deserved a close look: the label stated "prickly ash oil."

prickly ash oil

It took a minute for my creaky associative memory to provide insight: "prickly ash oil" is Sichuan pepper oil!

If I weren't illiterate in Chinese I would have known right away, because it says so right on the label:

花椒 (=hua1jiao1 = Sichuan pepper)

We tried the oil in a dish (mapo doufu). I thought it tasted a little smoky, with definite mouth-numbing effects. Not at all like capsicum peppers.

Tracy thought it "tastes like vomit" and refused to eat it.

Second Update
Ground Sichuan pepper is still available in San Francisco. Our friend Yan kindly gave us a bottle.


SichuanPepper (last edited 2009-01-17 06:34:57 by RobertYu)