Sichuan pepper berry, in its dried form, is well known and is an exotic addition to many a dish from that province of China. Its finely ground powder forms one of the ingredients in five spice powder, along with star anise, cinnamon, fennel and cloves. Less is known about the oil that is extracted from the berry. The pepper berry, although tingling and a little hot, is not related to regular pepper or to chilli.
We came across a factory producing Chinese pepper oil, 花椒油, located in Meishan, quite by chance. We were driving back to Chengdu after one glorious week of visiting ancient historic walled cities, restored Tang Dynasty houses, Buddhist temples, mountain streams dissecting lush green jungles, as well as the ‘Big Buddha’ in Leshan and the temples of Mt Emei, when Tia asked if we would like to visit the factory.
A big fan of the Sichuan pepper berry, I had to investigate further. This industry has thrived for more than 2000 years. In those days, the berry was harvested and the oil was extracted using these ancient wood and stone mills.
Today, the oil is extracted in the same way as olive oil and stored in vast stainless steel vats, then bottled and shipped around the world. It is an extensive, modern factory and well worth a visit to see such an unusual industry.
There is a quaint museum next to the factory with dioramas showing the production of this oil in ancient times, as well as kitchenalia from more recent times, including enamel ware from the Cultural Revolution, along with a restaurant.
The oil, like the berry, produces a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue and lips: a few drops added to the top of MaPo Dofu or a Vegetable stir fry is sensational, or with noodles, ginger, brown sugar, vinegar and greens.
I really wanted to buy a small bottle at the Hong Ya County Yaomazi Food Company but the thought of the jar breaking and leaking pepper oil over my luggage was a strong deterrent. It can be purchased in Melbourne in Chinese grocery stores but is hard to recognise. Just ask for Sichuan Pepper oil and someone in the store will find it for you. Like sesame oil, a little goes a long way.