As someone who’s built his career around food, I’ve tasted plenty of interesting things. Nothing prepared me for the first time I ate wild Szechuan peppercorns though.
I got introduced to them through my friends mother, an experienced wildcrafter. On night after dinner, the topic of Zanthoxylum came up, she said it was a plant she’d been cooking with for decades.
“YOU’VE never heard of Zanthoxylum?!”
She got excited, went to her storeroom and brought back a jar of some dried seeds. They didn’t smell like much, but after tasting one, and feeling my tongue go numb, I knew exactly what they were-wild Szechuan peppercorns. (Confusingly also known as Sichuan and Szechwan pepper)
I put the plant in the back of my mind, since you can order the dried berries from any food supplier with a spice selection, and since I don’t have much experience with Asian cuisine. I made sure to remember to take a look at the fresh berries the next time we took a walk up the hill where they grew.
After doing a little research I found out that Szechuan peppercorns are the berries belonging to a number of different species of prickly ash. What’s really interesting though is that Zanthoxylum is in the rue, or citrus family. To my knowledge, It’s the only species of rue in the Midwest, too.
The next time we took a walk up the hill, I made sure to visit the old bush. It was near the beginning of Summer, and the berries were just beginning to form on the branches. I picked some for experimenting, even though the berries were green and under-ripe.
From what I could find, the berries are usually harvested after they turn red on the plant, and grow a large black seed, which is gritty tasting. I experimented with the fresh berries throughout the growing season this year, cooking with unripe green berries, and the fully ripened red ones.
The old woman who showed me the Zanthoxylum uses the dried form, and employs a useful technique for harvesting the berries. She waits for the berries to dry on the branch, and after the seeds fall to the ground, she harvests the dried red husks.
Harvesting them like this gives you the best results in the kitchen for cooking with dried specimens, since, unlike purchased Szechuan peppercorns, there are none of the black seeds to worry about, which are unpleasant to eat.
To me there doesn’t seem to be much of a flavor difference between unripe green berries and fully developed red ones, but a bonus to working with the green berries is that the seed isn’t fully developed yet inside, so the whole peppercorn can be eaten.
Staring at a few little bags of the green berries I picked reminded me of green peppercorns, which can be pickled or preserved in brine. I played around with a couple recipes, treating the prickly ash berries like green peppercorns, and the results were great.
Eaten fresh these are like little lightning bolts. They have a citrus taste, which turns into a numbing sensation that lingers for 15 minutes or so. Cooking, preserving, or drying mellows them though, and combining them with other things helps calm their flavor too.
As far as cooking, there are plenty of options. You could definitely harvest these, dry them, and toss then into a stir fry, or something similar-that would be traditional. Another great thing I found was crushing the berries and using them in marinades with fish overnight, removing them before cooking which leaves a haunting, mellow citrus flavor.
One way I've found to treat these is like green peppercorns by brining or pickling, which gives you get more of the citrus flavor, and less of the numbing. They’re great chopped and sprinkled on things, mixed into dressings, or tossed in with a sauce at the last minute for fish.
I've now noticed a number of different species of zanthoxylum. Some species have leaves and berries that are more intense than others, my favorite being a species with small, deeply veined leaves. Rubbing the leaves and smelling them side by side is a great way to determine the differences in flavor between species.
Prickly Ash Recipes
Here's a few of my favorite prickly ash recipes.
Prickly Ash Chili Crisp
Make your own chili crisp at home with your hand-harvested prickly ash. I add some mushroom powder for good measure. You will be amazed how good the kitchen smells.
Prickly Ash Sausage
Aromatic sausage, Szechuan-style. Seasoned with dried prickly ash, fish sauce, and hot chili. Use pork, lamb, or venison mixed with pork fat.
Prickly Ash Jerky
Spicy, aromatic jerky made with hot chilis, prickly ash berries, and black pepper. Use your favorite meat.
The flavors really do vary considerably from Zanthoxylum species to species. It is like how a lemon differs from a typical grocery store lime.
For Zanthoxylum species found in East Asia, there are already established "best" uses of at least 2 of the species. In America, there seems to be far less use, and so established culinary "best" use of each species. It would be interesting to try a variety of recipes that use the different species in the same recipes to compare better.
This brining of the green fruits sounds like a good idea. I hope others will try it, too, and post comments.
Sam Schaperow, M.S.
Ramsons & Bramble
Another exciting new ingredient to seek out!
I am a traditional Chinese cuisine chef in Upper Michigan---www.chinajacks.net and am wondering if you can tell me just how many of these Zanthoxylum are growing where you are picking the husks? Are there like "millions" of them or do you really have to hunt to find a handful type of situation. The "odd" situation of this product is that until like 2005 it was ILLEGAL to import Sichuan Peppercorns into the U.S.---because it is a part of the rue family and "supposedly" could carry a bacteria that could wipe out citrus plantations----something I strongly feel is bs----so ALL of Sichuan peppercorn imported into the U.S. goes through a mega-heating process to kill any so-called bacteria AND of course most of the original great flavors. With the Zanthox. Americanum GROWING here in great numbers one would assume it could also carry the so-called bacteria. At any rate---using this is VERY important for my cooking endeavors….and FRESH rocks compared to "DEAD" stuff coming from China. I recently had friends coming from China bring me 5 kilos of fresh Sichuan peppercorn in their luggage… 🙂 Nice…
Hi Jack, as far as the number of berries, it varies, but right now they're all ripening and turning red, they're easy to see. I know of some places that have large concentrations of them, a friend or two and I could easily fill a few gallon bags in an hour or so. Thanks for the info on the importation restrictions.
I knew of Zanthoxylum long before I knew of Sichuan peppercorn. I assumed the numbing sensation meant 'stay away'. Prickly ash is so common in west central Minnesota that it's considered a huge nuisance. The citrus fragrance is fantastic. Can't wait to try cooking with it.
Yeah they're a lot of fun. The berries all taste similar, but the leaves of different species will have varying degrees of deliciousness, some are much, much better than others.
As with several other aromatic plants (esp. consider thymes or Houttuynia), there are likely different chemotypes within a given species (plants of one genetic heritage emphasize different essential oil etc compounds than do others with slightly different heritage). Z. americanum is the only species normally listed as far north as MN but probably isn't uniform. Z. clava-herculis (Hercules' club) grows more in the central and southern states. According to eattheweeds.com, it is medicinal but dubious as a spice. Probably its main value (other than for swallowtails) is as shock-value landscaping. It looks designed to stop tanks. Z. fagara (wild lime) smells exactly like lime zest, though I assume the flavor is lime zest + novocaine. It is basically neotropical and thus limited to south FL and probably also to the lower Rio Grande Valley, TX. All American Zanthoxylum species support Papilio cresphontes (Giant Swallowtail). Not sure about the Asian species (not reported), but since G.S. caterpillars will eat foreign Rutaceae like Citrus, Dictamnus, and even Ruta, I suspect they'd do fine on foreign Zanthoxylum species.
Thanks Eric, that gives me a little clarity on why a few plants I've run into have leaves with a very different aroma. Also not many people know of Houttuynia-just tried them for myself the first time this year.
I've discovered that the American version of Zanthoxylum is only good when GREEN----once they turn red/ripe they lose much of their greatness---which isn't as intense as their Sichuan or Japanese cousins. I want to find someone who can somehow get the good cold-resistant qualities of the American version and get the powerful numbness/tingling of the Sichuan ones----I know it can be done---I just don't know how to do it----
The concern was with imported plant materials, pests could hitchhike from in this case Asia. Anything eating native plants was already here.
Have you tried cooking with the prickly ash leaves? I am tempted to try to use them as one uses curry leaves in Indian cooking. They smell fantastic and have the same tongue numbing sensation when you put them in your mouth, but seems like it would be great to heat up some ghee, toss in a branch of prickly ash leaves and then add veggies and saute....I'll let you know how it turns out.
Hey Betsy! From my experience, the flavor of the leaves is not as soluble in solutions (except pickle or vinegar based) as I would like. I love to use the leaves, but I usually end up just putting them on things raw. What's really interesting to me about prickly ash/kinome leaves is that there are more than one species where we live, and the patch K pick from has two that grow side by side. Most of the plants have the typical Z. americanum flavor, but one of them is different, and tastes exactly like Kaffir lime, the flavor is stronger, and the leaves much smaller than typical Z. americanum, with more space between leaf segments. I'm trying to graft or clone the plant, but I've not been having a lot of success, you're welcome to come cut a branch on the farm, or just taste them to see the difference sometime, really fascinating. After I tasted the leaves at the farm, I stopped picking them from anywhere else, just not the same. Have you noticed any differences between species in what you pick? Let me know how the curried leaves turn out, will you use them whole, and leave them in? Maybe that might work, idk. 🙂
Hi Alan: Are you saying the leaves can be used with perfect exchangability with kaffir lime leaves? Is it a particular Z. species that is the same as kaffir?
I’m a former Minnesota wildcrafter who also loves the Minnesota Zanthoxylem Americanum. I used to just eat it fresh and have not yet tried cooking with it but I was quite impressed with its ability to withstand cold growing wild up into North Dakota. I’m a former Minnesota wild crafter because three years or so ago I moved to China and got married and have been enjoying the delicious eats ever since! To clarify there are a number of different varieties of Sichuan peppercorns the best being found near Chengdu in SiChuan (四川）province. The ones that are picked green are called MaJiao (麻椒）and the red ripened ones are called HuaJiao (花椒）. To cook with them they’re first dried and the black seed is usually removed (more easy to do with HuaJiao) before cooking. To get the most flavor out you should heat the seeds in dry oil to dissolve the flavorful oils in the husk.
My question is about the different “species” you’ve found in MN. Can you post some more pictures of the plant? The huajiao plants I’ve seen in central China (Henan province) are very similar to the southern species found in America and grow more like a single trunked tree. While the one’s I’m familiar with from Princeton MN tend to be more like a thicket of (I assume) clonal individuals each one being quite small and twiggy. Are any of you familiar with the flavors of the southern prickly ash fruits in the US?
Hi Neale. I don't have time to go gather more images of them this year, maybe next year. And yes "different species" is in quotes, as botanists will disagree with me. The flavor of the leaves is completely different from the shrubby clone variety that is ubiquitous in MN. Nice to have some names and references for the different stages harvested in China. Eat some Mapo Tofu for me.
I ran across this post after researching pepper plants. Would you consider shipping some berries and cuttings to San Diego. I would love to buy some cuttings and seeds of several good seedling cultivars.
Possibly in the Summer. I would reach out again during the growing season.
Found my own little orchard of Prickly ash berries - or should I say they found me - the thorns caught on my hat while foraging for mushrooms...these little delights are just as the forager chef says - numbing and tingling to the bite…the variety here in SE Wisconsin smells of very pungent limes, and the leaves are a very citrusy blend, but bitter tasting. By the way, the reason I found the Forager Chef Site was from watching Yan can Cook on PBS and him talking about Szechwan peppercorns a few months ago and my web search.. Amazing how one thing led to another in a few months!
That's great, enjoy your harvest. Different species will have different tasting leaves.
Just notice this in a The NY Times daily email: When I was having dinner last year at Zhangmama, a little Sichuan restaurant in Beijing, a young couple eating next to me did me a favor: Realizing I didn’t speak Chinese, they signaled to the waitress to bring me a small bowl of oil in which I could dip my sautéed vegetables. The oil was made from Sichuan peppercorns, which have a numbing, tingling spice very different from hot peppers. It transformed my vegetables.
But the oil — which also goes by the name prickly ash oil — is not easy to find in the U.S. So I’ve been thrilled to discover a small company called 50Hertz, founded by a World Bank clean-energy specialist named Yao Zhao, that sells a boldly fragrant version. The company just began selling a new batch online.
On Instagram, the cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop has recommended using the 50Hertz oil on dan dan noodles. You can pair either the noodles or your vegetables with Gong Bao chicken, adapted from one of Dunlop’s recipes.
Thanks Judith. I've purchased the infused oil I assume they're speaking about. The oil commonly sold as szechuan peppercorn oil I see, or sansho oil, is an infusion of the green, unripe berries, and, honestly, I found it so foul tasting (one person said it was like battery acid, and I agree) that I threw the whole bottle in the garbage. It was cheap, and incredibly strong tasting, so it made me wonder about the processes used (synthetic, etc) to get the flavor so potent. I think an infusion of the ripe berries in simple oil could be very good, but I haven't tried it yet. As for the oil sold by the 50Hertz company---yes, that's a hot infusion mixed with a few other things, and it is excellent. I have a recipe in my manuscript for a version you can make at home, my partner Pilar has been loving it on pizza.
Here's a link to the oil I do not recommend buying
One wonderful thing about prickly ash is that it is also a northern food plant for the gorgeous giant swallowtail, which has been moving north. You can see them now of a Vermont summertime, even!
The concern was with imported plant materials, pests could hitchhike from in this case Asia. Anything eating native plants was already here.
I was reading that prickly ash reproduces well from root cuttings. Sharing that with the hope that you'll produce a bunch of them and sell them to rest of us that are drooling with your descriptions of this better selection 🙂
Thank you so much for what you do!
Hi there! Another northern prickly ash fan here. We have them growing all over our rocky, swampy property in eastern Ontario. I used to travel to China for business regularly and remember my host almost launching herself across the table to stop me from eating some sichuan peppercorns. I did it anyway 🙂 So, when I tried a berry at home I recognized the sensation immediately although it is much much milder. I'm retired now so will be able to watch and taste our local prickly ash more methodically this summer and try some of your recipes. I've always thought they would make a great flavouring for gin. We have a lot of juniper, too. One piece of info you might be interested in is that there are male and female plants with different characteristics. I've heard that female berries are more flavourful and male leaves are more flavourful. I will try and figure out how to tell them apart and report back.
Hey Liz that's super helpful. That kind of difference between male and female plants would answer a question I've had for a long time. Please keep me posted.