The Buzzing, Numbing, Spicy Sichuan Pepper

When we first arrived in Beijing, and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, every meal was a game of menu roulette. We’d point to some characters on the menu, nod like crazy and hope something resembling food would come out. One night, we had a particularly spicy chicken dish, and about half way through eating it, my mouth felt numb. My head felt weird. I felt like I had licked a battery or stuck my tongue in an electric socket.

“Wow, there must be a ton of MSG in this,” I remember telling Drew.

I was wrong. A month later I’d find out that this was my first introduction to Sichuan pepper, the spice with an effect so strange that I assumed I was being poisoned by an MSG overdose.

I’ve eaten Sichuan dishes in Chinese restaurants in the States before, but I’d never experienced the numbing effect. That’s because Sichuan pepper has been banned in the US since 1968 (not because it’s toxic but because it sometimes carries a bacteria that can be harmful to certain crops). The FDA only recently started allowing it again.

I really wanted to cook with it.

You might be able to find something like this in the States.

I picked up a jar of this at the store.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so it sat in my cupboard for a few weeks.  Finally, I decided to make up my own Spicy Sichuan Soy Chicken Wings recipe:

This is my Dark Soy Sauce and Light Soy Sauce.

Okay, so this is my super, melt-your-face-off-spicy version:

2 parts of sichuan pepper sauce (I used like a half a cup, maybe more, but scale it to your desired amount)

1 part dark soy sauce

1 part light soy sauce

5 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup sugar

2 lbs chicken wings

Now, don’t make this version.  This is stupidly spicey.  It’s THAI hot, where the Thai cook is laughing at you behind the face mask they have to wear while cooking so they don’t choke on the fumes of intense spice and while it probably won’t make you actually cry, you’ll be pretty close to it.

If you just want to try the sichuan flavor, just add a little sichuan pepper sauce to a BBQ recipe that you already use.  Go easy, people!  I lived in Thailand for six months so I’m used to spice plus I find it deeply satisfying if I make something A) that my husband thinks is delicious B) is so hot that even he can’t finish it.  I’m diabolical with the spice.

My ears were ringing after eating this, but it was really good.  Lemony-spiced with salty soy and the kind of heat that is addictive and painful.

Here are some much nicer recipes: Spicy Chicken Wings or Glazed Sichuan Chicken Wings.

The marinade.

I mix together the ingredients and it looks something like this.  I pour it over the chicken wings (or chicken legs, whatever) and let it marinade for an hour, stirring it half way through to make sure it’s well coated.

The marinaded chicken, cooking on med-high heat.

Heat a tablespoon of oil over med-high heat and add the chicken.  Save the left over marinade, if you want to make a sauce.


Cook the heck out of it.  In a separate saucepan, bring the leftover marinade to a boil, then reduce heat.  Add a little cornstarch to thicken it up.

Coating the chicken.

Add the cooked chicken to the thickened sauce.  Stir to coat.  (Skip this step especially if you don’t want it massively hot.  This adds even more heat).

The very dark final version.

If you have white sesame seeds in your kitchen, go ahead and sprinkle them on top.  Pretty.

Dig in.

The numbing effect actually changes the way you taste food for a bit, so even drinking water during this meal has a different flavor.  It really does feel like your mouth is buzzing.

To folks in the States — can you get fresh Sichuan anywhere?  I might do a few recipes with the whole peppercorn, but I’m not sure what’s available.  Next time you’re in an Asian market, if you remember to take a look, let me know what you find.   (Also if there’s an online retailer for the Sichuan Pepper Sauce, post the link below, please, I couldn’t find it.)


  1. Dorothea

    They are actually not a peppercorn, but a kind of berry. AFAIK only the husk is ever used as a spice. In the UK at least Schwartz sell them, so you can get it in any regular supermarket. I love making Mapo Tofu with it.

  2. Penzey’s Spices in the US sells Sichuan peppercorns. I bought a jar on a whim recently and just made a recipe for Sichuan chicken noodle soup last night!

  3. Your timing is impeccable. The other week I had my first experience with the sichuan pepper at a restaurant in NYC’s East Village called Grand Sichuan. While the dried red chilis were burning our tongues, the sichuan peppers were numbing them, in an unusual, almost astringent way. Crazy.

  4. I also like to cook chiken .with spices, but not that much hot …
    I don’t want to make my family cry when they will eat it 🙂
    By the way the marinaded chiken looks very tasty :))

  5. I love that numbing taste of sichuan pepper 🙂 Your food lottery menu from Beijing reminds me of my time in China. I think I memorised the symbol for chicken, and then would order anything on the menu that looked vaguely like the symbol. It sure made for interesting meals!

  6. Oh man, I love sichuan peppers. In high school a friend brought some back from China and we would one-up each other eating the whole berries. Now I have another craving!!

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  8. As people have said, they are available in the U.S. but the sensation they produce actually caused them to be banned from import for a while. Hope you are enjoying this beautiful pollution free day in Beijing!

  9. Yes I bought a bag of sichuan peppercorns in an Asian market. I was
    cooking them with some oil but today I dry roasted them in a medium hot
    wok and grinded them after in a spice grinder…my husband and I were in
    heaven while eating our dinner!