I remember the first time we, the food team were discussing ideas with Chef Vikas Khanna in that cold, 6 by 6 cabin of our office for Masterchef India 3. In his charming manner and a big smile on his face, he was telling us about all the astonishing spices he has used over the years. It was like music to my ears, his knowledge and the passion with which he spoke about food. He makes you fall in love with these little things, doesn’t he? In his Punjabi accent and with an animated tone he asks, ‘Tumne woh mirchi nahi khai?’ (Haven’t you tried that spice?) ‘Ek baar zubaan pe rakh do, bilkul current maar deti hai, kuch feel hee nahi hota uske baad.’ Your mouth becomes numb, it’s like an anesthetic and you can’t feel a thing in your mouth after that. The locals in the Himalayan region, sometimes refer to it as, current mirchi.
And what a current it was, that day when this packet of Timbur or Himalayan Sichuan Pepper first arrived in the Masterchef kitchen. It was like a game, Chef Vikas was there too and we all kept Timbur at the tip of our tongue. But by the time we could say, ‘What’s the big deal in this?’ our tongues were numb. It was really as though a current had passed through it and we could not feel our nerves. It isn’t pungent or hot like chilies, although some who haven’t tried it might think it is, its actually a palate numbing spice. The thing is, the compounds in this spice create a mixed sensation on the tongue nerves. It is a little cold, or sour, I don’t know, but this confusion in the nerves causes the numbness. This quality of Sichuan Peppers is so unique that the Chinese have different word for it its called the ‘Ma-ness’ of food. In Sichuan food this Ma-ness is combined with chilies that impart the heat and gives us a combination of numbness and heat in the food.
The Sichuan Pepper has a deceptive name, because it originally comes from the Citrus Family and has a delicate and citrusy undertone, unlike peppers that are hot. While Sichuan Pepper forms the basis of Sichuan cooking, its related species like the Himalayan Sichuan Pepper, (Timbur/ Thingay) is widely used in Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese cuisine. Another related spice available in India is used in Konkani Cuisine, along the western coastal belt of India its known as Terphal.
How To Use Sichuan Peppers and its related species?
Due to its delicate and citrusy, volatile flavour Sichuan Peppers and its related species should be added at the end of the cooking process to preserve the light flavour. It should be deseeded first since the seeds give a gritty texture to the food. The pericarp is then lightly toasted, crushed and then added to the food once it is almost cooked.
This process is different for momos, where in the Himalayan Sichuan Pepper is cooked with the beef or pork to prepare the momo mixture.
The uses of Sichuan Peppers in cooking techniques of China are multiple. While Sichuan Pepper is one of the spices in Chinese 5 spice powder, it is also the basis of Sichuan cuisine itself. It can be paired with pork, duck, beef or even fish. It is toasted and crushed and mixed with salt, and placed in shakers to be sprinkled on pork, duck and meat preparations. Another condiment is prepared by mixing toasted and crushed Sichuan Pepper with chilies and other spices.
Varieties Available in India
The Himalayan Sichuan Pepper or Timbur has a strong intensity for numbness, or the current-factor and has a lighter citrus undertone compared to Chinese Sichuan Peppers. They are much smaller than their Indian counterpart – the spice from the Deccan, Terphal.
It is available in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet and also in towns near these borders. This variety is also available with some vendors in Delhi.
Timbur is often paired with garlic and chilies to flavour beef or pork momos. It also combines well with varieties of red chilies, ginger and star anise and can be used to flavour soups and stews. I had the opportunity of trying out Aditi Madan’s Timbur chutney, a contestant on Masterchef from the North East. During the first task of the 4th week in the Masterchef Kitchen she made a Timur chutney which was delicious and surprising, because I didn’t know that this spice can be mastered in a chutney!
Terphal – Spice along the Western Coastline which many Maharashtrians are vaguely familiar with. This spice is widely used in Konkani and Malvani cuisine. Terphal is atleast 3 times bigger in size than Timur. It is used in combination with dried red chilies and coconut bases. It gives delicate flavour to seafood preparations and is also used in combination with hot spices to impart flavour in mutton curries and other meat preparations.
The current-factor or numbness from Terphal is far less than that of the Himalayan Sichuan Pepper. It does not numb the tongue like timur or impart that current sensation on the tongue. The light, citrus undertone gives a subtle and unique flavour to the Malvani seafood and meat curries. It is used in making Malvani garam masala.
Other related species of this spice include the Indonesian Lemon Pepper which has a strong citrus flavour when compared to Sichuan Peppers. This species is widely used in Batak cuisine. It can be replaced in curries with a combination of pepper and lemongrass. The Japanese prickly ash is a spice similar to Sichuan Pepper used in making the Japanese Sansho.
I am as curious as you are about the unique flavour of this spice and the recipes that I could experiment with and use it in. Fortunately, I have both varieties, Terphal is easily available to me in Mumbai kirana stores and my sister has brought back some original Timur for me from her trip to Bhutan. I can’t wait to try out these two and see the flavour of which will go best in what recipe. So I will experiment and share my notes and recipes with you soon in the second part of this piece. You enjoy reading and do share your notes on Timur and Sichuan Pepper with me.
The First Season of Junior Masterchef India starts airing tonight on Star Plus. Here’s wishing all the best to all the ‘Swaad Ke Ustaad’ on this show.