One hears about Sichuan pepper, but actually, this is misleading.
Various species of Zanthoxylum give spices that are “Sichuan pepper(corn),” in English, but are not all the same…
Chinese is not particularly exact, and the link between botany (species) and spice use and trade (commerce) is not strong – to put it mildly.
Still, Chinese has a few more names for “Sichuan pepper” that it is worth to know and consider in relation with the plant’s botany.
Basics re. Sichuan Pepper
Huajiao 花椒, literally translating as flower pepper, is a rather general term in Chinese as well. It could mean any of the spices and species.
The most common simple differentiation is that between hong huajiao 红花椒 and qing huajiao 青花椒. That’s simply red Sichuan pepper and green Sichuan pepper.
This is all the consideration of the two different kinds used as spices which is truly common, e.g. in Chinese supermarkets. Most people wouldn’t go much further than here.
Spices and Species
Red Sichuan Pepper, Hong Huajiao
Hong huajiao 红花椒, according to Chinese sources (including the Flora Chinas) comes from the species Zanthoxylum bungeanum.
Now, it does not necessarily have to come from this species; I am certain that people would call most red Sichuan pepper “corns” by that moniker, but this species is usually put forth as source of that spice.
Interestingly, while most people outside of China may think of Sichuan pepper as being the reddish-brown corns used as spice, things are a bit more complicated in Chinese – when it comes to the green type.
Green Sichuan Pepper, Qing Huajiao
Green Sichuan pepper, qing huajiao 青花椒, is not necessarily green Sichuan pepper.
One type that is addressed with that word is supposed to be Zanthoxylum schinifolium, or at least that is what the Flora Chinas (and Chinese online sources) tend to say.
Another type is said to be Zanthoxylum armatum. This type of green Sichuan pepper has the Chinese name teng jiao, which is usually translated as “rattan pepper” (or “vine pepper“).
Some people seem to think that this is because it grows as/on vines rather than the usual bushes or small trees, but not much seems to speak for that.
Teng jiao, “Rattan” Green Sichuan Pepper
Teng jiao 藤椒 is a name one finds often in China – and I’ve never heard anyone speak of it in non-Chinese writing.
Strangely enough, teng jiao and/or Zanthoxylum armatum also seem to be the kind of Zanthoxylum called 竹叶花椒 zhu ye hua jiao, “bamboo leaf pepper.” (That name for that species is mentioned in the Flora Chinas, as well. Not, however, as teng jiao… which is not mentioned in there at all. Neither is the use of that species as spice…)
Another name given for teng jiao is shan hua jiao 山花椒, “mountain flower pepper.”
The Issue of Sansho / “Shanjiao” / Japanese Pepper
This is as close as one gets to the Japanese pepper’s name of sansho 山椒 (which would be shan jiao, “mountain pepper,” if read as Chinese).
That name is often said to come directly from a Chinese name for Sichuan pepper, but I haven’t actually found much support for that in Chinese. Of course, the Japanese kanji used are originally Chinese characters, but Chinese does not speak of anything as shan jiao.
There is this shan hua jiao, there would also be ye shan jiao 野山椒, “wild mountain (chilli) pepper,” but there is no shan jiao.
(One can also get closer to the name with shan hujiao 山胡椒, “mountain foreign/black pepper,” but that is something completely different again.)
What comes into play here is that there are Chinese botanical names for (some of) the different species of Zanthoxylum.
Zanthoxylum simulans – the species that is commonly sold/used as Sichuan pepper in Central Europe (my Pannonian Pepper is of that species) – is 野花椒 ye hua jiao, “wild flower pepper” in Chinese.
Jiu Ye Qing Huajiao & Ma Jiao
Finally, there are also names for Sichuan pepper in Chinese which seem to be (mainly) local names in Sichuan and Guizhou, ma jiao 麻椒, and Sichuan and Chongqing, jiu ye qing hua jiao 九叶青花椒.
Ma jiao can be translated as “hemp pepper,” but it could also simply mean “numbing pepper” – it’s the same ma that is used to describe the numbing “taste” (effect) of Sichuan pepper in general.
Ma jiao usually seems to mean a green Sichuan pepper… but not necessarily. And anyways, many – if not all – green Sichuan peppers seem to be harvested in a green stage, but might ripen to red.
They definitely do tend to change their color to greenish-brown or brownish-black eventually, especially if not stored cold (and away from light and airtight).
(Japanese pepper, sansho, definitely falls into this category. It is a different species, Z. piperitum, yet again – and it ripens to red and loses its vibrant green color when stored for too long.)
Jiu Ye Qing Huajiao
Jiu ye qing hua jiao, “nine-leaf green flower pepper,” is a type of green Sichuan pepper that is grown in the area of Chongqing. It is usually – no surprise, given the name – sold in its green state but quickly loses that color.
It also sounds as if it should be well-recognizable and special, given its naming for nine leaves, that should refer to the leaflets of the compound leaf. However, as things go so often with Zanthoxylum, the botanical literature as well as online sources of a more general nature, do not associate that name with any particular species.
We have not even started looking at a classification that is quite popular in China, by origin of the spice. This would be where names like Hanyuan huajiao come from, of course.
All Just Academic?
For the most part, this is quite an academic exercise. To use and enjoy huajiao in one’s cooking, one only needs to know about the difference between hong huajiao and qing huajiao, the red and the green kinds.
These come with such a difference in aroma and effect, they really need to be told apart – and it’s easy enough to do so just by color.
Everything else is just academics – or a bonus.
It is fascinating to see, I hope, that there is a deeper world hidden behind these basics, though. And it does offer some more differences it can be fun to explore, between tongue and mind, eating and learning.