Szechuan Pepper and Where To Find It In San Diego

My Introduction

Of course I had heard of Szechuan cuisine, but never realized that a special kind of "pepper" is used in it. This all changed at our work group's last holiday-party-and-salsa-contest, where one of my coworkers, "Tuo", an engineer originally from China, brought a small amount of Szechuan-pepper-oil from his household stash and entered it as a contestant.

The oil was hot, but more interestingly, left a tingly aftereffect on the tongue which ended in a kind of numbness. There were aromatic, eucalyptus-esque notes to the flavor as well. Although Tuo's "Dragon Oil" didn't win the salsa contest, it intrigued me, my boss, and another fellow enought that Tuo gave each of us a little bit to take home. And I got curious and started to quiz him about it.

He said, "it is called Chinese Pepper". With this in hand, I did a web search and found:

Wikipedia article on Szechuan Pepper

The Great Pepper Hunt Commences

Tuo didn't know where I could get the raw pepper, since it was usually his wife who got it, but suggested I check around various Asian markets. A couple of days later, he also brought me a partly-empty bag of it, and this was the breakthrough clue I needed. As it turns out, very rarely is it labeled "Chinese Pepper".

Here are the brands of Szechuan pepper I found and where they were sold (January, 2012):

From 99 Ranch Market, 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd just east of I-805:

"Panda" brand "Dried Pepper Corn", "Hoa Tieu" in Vietnamese
Bag is pink and green with a mom and baby panda near the top.
This is the brand of the original bag that Tuo gave me.

"Red Flower" brand "Sze Chuan Pepper".
Bag is orange with green trim at the top and bottom; transparent in the middle to show the pepppers.
The words "Sze Chuan Pepper" are printed in dark green ink in the middle of the transparent area, and are virtually invisible against the background of peppers.
This brand is vacuum-packed which I thought was a nice touch.


From Lucky Seafood, 9326 Mira Mesa Blvd
(northeast corner of MM Blvd and Black Mountain Road behind the Arco and Comerica bank):

"Dried Prickly Ash (Pepper Corn)"
Bag is purple-pink at the top and bottom, and transparent in the middle to show the peppers.
A yellow banner just under the pink area at the top proclaims "Product of China" in both English and Chinese.

There are probably other places in San Diego County where these are sold as well. I only checked the North/Central county area.

Other stores I checked who did not carry these peppers:
Zion Market on Mercury St. just north of Balboa
Vinh Hung in Mira Mesa
Vinh Hoa herb shop on Convoy St

99 Ranch Market Parking Tips

99 Ranch, like so many of these Asian markets, has way insufficient parking. It really needs to be set up like a Vons, but it is not. So, you have mosh pit parking in the front of the building, and also in the rear. A suggested backup plan is to go behind the store on Convoy Ct (parallels Clairemont Mesa Blvd), park there on the street, and walk up to the store.

Tuo's Pepper Briefing

Over the course of several conversations on different days, Tuo gave me the following briefing about Szechuan pepper:

The plant "looks a lot like the California Pepper (tree)-- leaves, bark, everything look just like it, but it is a bush instead. It grows everywhere in southern China, like a weed."

"When the fruit is ripe, the outer husk opens up like a pair of clamshells and the seed drops out onto the ground. Then, people just go out and pick the fruit (opened, empty husks) off the tree/bush. The price of this pepper (indicated the $2.50 bag he was holding) is probably just the labor it takes to gather it."

About preparation:

He agreed with the Wikipedia article, that "only the outer husk is used, the seed inside is not used."

"Be careful when frying the peppers in the oil. You have to "boil the oil" first, and when they are dropped into it they may explode.
The best oil is a mild one such as sesame oil or olive oil."

"Mix these peppers with Cayenne pepper; that gives the best flavor. Other peppers such as Jalapeno are 'too hot' and not as good with it. Chinese often use White Pepper with this too. [I've seen white pepper in the asian stores; they look like the black peppercorns except white in color.] White pepper is hotter than black pepper."

"My wife makes up a batch of the (pepper) oil about every 3 months. When she prepares the oil, I have to open up every door and window in the house, and we go outside. Even so, the smell of the peppers is strong for a week afterwards inside the house."

Aliases for Chinese/Szechuan Pepper

Here's large list of the assumed names it may be going by in the store, both in my experience and from Wikipedia:

Closeup of Szechuan Peppers.
Note the "clamshell" appearance.
The actual fruits are about 1/8 inch or 4mm across.

Back to Crocuta Main