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Brown peppercorns are the flowers of the prickly ash, dried and used as a seasoning. They are also known as Sichuan or Szechuan peppercorns, or sometimes simply Chinese pepper. As the alternate names for brown peppercorns imply, they are native to Asia, and have been used extensively in Chinese cuisine for centuries.
It can sometimes be difficult to obtain brown peppercorns, but they are a useful addition to the spice cabinet, especially for cooks who like to make Chinese food. Asian markets are an excellent source for whole and ground brown peppercorns, along with an assortment of other inexpensive and useful Asian ingredients.
Prickly ash is a bush in the genus Zanthoxylum, meaning that it is not a true pepper, since real peppercorns come from plants in the Piper genus. However, brown peppercorns resemble true peppercorns, and they have a similar flavor profile, so the confusion can be forgiven. Zanthoxylum can be found throughout Asia, producing small pods which split open to reveal an inner black seed. The dried pods are sold both whole and ground in many parts of Asia.
The black seed inside brown peppercorns is not edible, and is usually discarded. The pods themselves have a spicy, flavor which is less bitter and acrid than true pepper. They also taste somewhat lemony, and tend to make the mouth slightly numb. As some of the alternate names suggest, brown peppercorns are very popular in Szechuan cuisine. They may be used whole in pickling mixtures and rubs, or ground for inclusion in sauces and marinades.
As with most spices, brown peppercorns taste best when they are kept in a cool dry place and ground as needed. While cooks can purchase already ground brown peppercorns, the flavor will diminish over time, so unless the powder is going to be used quickly, whole peppercorns are a better choice. Both whole peppercorns and powder can be dry roasted in a pan to bring out flavor.
In the United States, brown peppercorns were briefly banned due to concerns about a disease which they carried. Known as “citrus canker,” it potentially posed a serious threat to the American citrus crop. The United States lifted the ban when pasteurization demonstrably killed the bacteria. However, this temporary ban led to widespread confusion on the part of consumers, who thought that brown peppercorns were banned because they were dangerous. This is not, in fact, the case; brown peppercorns are perfectly safe to consume.
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