Sichuan peppercorn is one of the spices in the five-spice powder popular in Chinese cuisine. It comes from the outer peel of berry fruit and is locally known as “hu jiao.” The earliest references to Sichuan pepper, also called Schezuan pepper, are seen in the Classic of Poetry, said to have been compiled by Confucius (551-479 BC).
Sichuan pepper comes from several species of Zanthoxylum. These species are distributed across China, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and India. An allied species, Zanthoxylum americanum, is found in North America.
Z. americanum is a North American species, colloquially called the toothache tree because of its anesthetic properties that the Native Americans used to relieve a toothache.
The pepper was used in China as a medicinal herb and for seasoning food. In ancient China, the pepper was steeped in wine to give it a unique peppery, lemony flavor. Avicenna (c. 1020 AD) referred to the spice as fagara. The spice came to the Persian and Arabic regions with traders who took the Silk Route from China to the region.
The import of Sichuan pepper was banned in the US in 2005 to protect the orange crop from citrus canker disease from infected peppercorns. Untreated berries carrying the bacteria Xanthomonas axonopodis can have a disastrous effect on citrus crops.
Bacteria contained in Sichuan pepper is killed when berries are gently roasted, a traditional practice. Imports into the US were re-opened but only for heat-treated peppercorns. Limited quantities of Chinese peppers are imported into the US, mainly for Chinese eateries and lovers of Chinese food.
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