Zanthoxylum simulans. The Szechuan pepper tree has many monikers, a sure sign of an ethnobotanical treasure. Known as toothache tree or prickly ash in the United States, huajiao in China, sansho in Japan, and tuba in Indonesia, the taxonomy of this genus of more than 250 species can be confusing, which is why it is useful to rely on Latin nomenclature. These Szechuan pepper trees are Zanthoxylum simulans. Our Japanese pepper trees are a different species, Zanthoxylum piperitum. We find no discernible difference in the berries.
And such berries! The edible portion of the fruit is the pericarp, or the husk surrounding the seed. Contained within its papery segments is hydroxy alpha sanshool, the chemical that delivers the famous tingling/numbing sensation prevalent in so many Szechuan dishes. This component is layered in a lemon base alongside a peppery heat. The two sensations, tingling and heat, are known as ma and la. Ma predominates and this is why Szechuan peppers are frequently used in tandem with hot chili peppers.
Berries ripen and turn a bright red in early autumn. An easy way to separate the husk from the unused seed is to place the berries between cloth and smash with a rolling pin. Toast the husks briefly right before using them, then grind roughly and transform your culinary experience. Try Szechuan peppers in lemon bars, noodles, eggs, fish, stirfry, miso soup, or almost anything you can think of, and don't forget cocktails. The possibilities are infinite.
Grow in full sun or part shade in hot summer areas. Established trees hardy to minus 10 degrees F, Zones 6 through 9. Fairly easy to grow, no pernicious pests or diseases. Deciduous. Szechuan pepper tree seems to be fairly self-fertile, certainly much more so than our sansho trees, which are strictly dioecious. A greater harvest is had by more than one tree, but not always necessary for berry production. Female plants can self-pollenize so this may explain single trees bearing fruit. Our plants are not sexed, so we cannot guarantee any single plant will produce berries. Leaves are pinnately compound, leathery, not used in cooking. A multi-trunk shrub that wears a mighty armor of thorns to 20 feet in colder climates, taller in warmer areas.
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