Sichuan pepper (Timur) is one of a few Nepali spices available for export. Presently India is the main market, but with distillation into essential oils, other overseas markets will surely become available.
By Aruna Shukla – Jadibuti Association of Nepal.
Sichuan pepper has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like black or white pepper, or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth (caused by its 3% of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool) that sets the stage for hot spices. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, second edition, p429 they are not simply pungent; “they produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.”
The Indian subcontinent uses a number of varieties of Sichuan pepper. In Konkani it is known as tephal or tirphal. In Nepali, Z. alatum is known as timur, while in Tibetan, it is known as yer ma and in Bhutan as thingay. In Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, around Lake Toba, Z. acanthopodium is known as andaliman in the Batak Toba language and tuba in the Batak Karo language.
In America, it is possible to come across names such as “Szechwan pepper,” “Chinese pepper,” “Japanese pepper,” “aniseed pepper,” “Sprice pepper,” “Chinese prickly-ash,” “Fagara,” “sansho,” “Nepal pepper,” “Indonesian lemon pepper,” and others, sometimes referring to specific species within this group, since this plant is not well known enough in the West to have an established name. Some brands also use the English description “Dehydrated Prickly Ash” since Sichuan pepper, and Japanese sansho, are from related plants that are sometimes called prickly ash because of their thorns.
Genus – Zanthoxylum
Family – Rutaceae
Order – Sapindales
Scientific – Zanthoxylum armatum
English – Sichuan pepper, Szechuan pepper, Szechwan pepper
Indian & Nepalese – Timur
Dutch – Szechuanpeper
Spanish – Pimienta de Sichuan
French – Poivre chinois, Poivre du Sichuan
German – Anispfeffer, Chinesischer Pfeffer, Japanischer Pfeffer, Szechuanpfeffer
Italian – Pepe di Sichuan
– The botanical name comes from the Greek xanthon xylon meaning “blond wood.” It refers to the brightly coloured sapwood possessed by several of the species. The genus belongs in the rue or citrus family, and, despite its name, is not closely related to either black pepper or chili pepper.
The husk or hull (pericarp) around the seeds may be used whole, especially in Szechuan cuisine, and the finely ground powder is one of the blended ingredients for the five-spice powder. It is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. The pericarp is the part that is most often used, but the leaves of various species are used as well in some regions of China.
Related species are used in the cuisines of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand and the Konkani and Toba Batak peoples. In Bhutan this pepper is known as ‘thinge’ and is used liberally in preparation of soups, gruels and phaag sha paa (pork slices).
A shrub or small tree with gray to brown, smooth bark punctuated with mounds usually armed with paired spines, often forming thickets. The red-brown to gray branches are usually armed with opposite thorns and alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves consist of five to 11 small, elliptic, ovate to oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets. Loose clusters of small, inconspicuous, long-stalked, five-petaled, green flowers growing from the leaf axils, to be replaced by lemon-scented, spherical to ellipsoid, bumpy, long-stalked, red fruit capsules containing shiny, hard, aromatic black seeds.
The essential oil of Zanthoxylum armatum was extracted through hydro distillation and analyzed by GC-MS. Hydrocarbon fraction (17.35%) of the oil was much lower and oxygenated compounds comprised fairly high portion of essential oil (39.21%). Percentages of monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes found were 47.33% and 10.83% respectively. Oxygenated monoterpenes comprised major profile of chromatogram of essential oil of Zanthoxylum armatum i.e. 37.23% where as monoterpene hydrocarbons were 10.09%. Alcoholic percentage was much higher i.e. 26.76% and 15-hexadecanoloide (6.58%) the only cyclic ester was found in relatively high percentage.
Both seeds and vegetative parts are used for the propagation of timur. In farmer’s experience, it grows best in moist soil that expose to the sun. The plant also works as a terrace raiser for cropland and has minimum impact to crop yield. It requires less fertile soil and can be harvested after three years of plantation. A five years old plant has an average yield of about 3.5 Kg of fruits per year. The study revealed that a large quantity of timur is collected and harvested from the naturally grown as well as transplanted shrubs in the community forests and leasehold forests, private forests, and barren lands in Salyan, Surkhet, Jajarkot, Dailekh, Achham, and Kalikot districts. A small portion of production comes from the national forest. Naturally regenerated plants are found dominantly in the barren lands and surrounding areas of the croplands. Few individual farmers are doing mass cultivation in their private lands and small patches of plantation have also been initiated in the community forests and leasehold forests.
This species is gradually depleting from the national forests as well as community forests, particularly in open access areas. People have started plantation of the species in private land and the systemic cultivation has been realised in the project area. Though, cultivation cost of this species seems slightly high for the initial few years,after that it requires minimum investment,mostly labour for harvesting and post-harvest handling.
It has been identified that the season for collection of fruit varies from one place to another in the surveyed location. However, in most of the places, people start collection from the last week of September, when the fruit ripens and turns dark red, and the collection continues till the early November. According to the respondent farmers, the poor, women, children and the unemployed people collect the Timur fruit while grazing cattle (gothala), and collecting leaf litter and fodder. They generally pick the fruit by using hands and sticks and using traditional weapons occasionally to cut the branches and stems.
Harvesting of Timur is found to be difficult and inefficient because of its spines and thrones which decreases the per day collection. Collectors often lop off the branches or stems especially in open access areas (national forest and community forest) in order to facilitate the collection. Such lopping off practice has negative effects on the plant and decreases the subsequent fruit production. Sometimes it takes as many as three to five years for the recovery of fruit production. As a traditional practice, whole shrubs are also harvested for fencing the farmland in some areas. Harvesting the entire plant even before it has fully matured can adversely affect the regeneration of the species. In the project area, the early harvesting of the product is generally in practice that might cause fungus development in 11dried fruit. Altogether 220 MT of timur is being traded along the three road corridors. Around 5,000 HHs are involved in the project area and 36,300 person days is required for collection, harvesting and post-harvest handling. Moreover, extensive workforce is required for processing and marketing activities; weighing, packaging, load/unload and storage purposes. Per shrub production of the product is 5 Kg dried weight. Dried seed coats weighing 3.5 Kg and 1.5 Kg of black shiny seeds can be obtained from 20 Kg of fresh ripen fruit (DPR, Salyan).
Edible parts of Szechuan Pepper:
The fruit is dried and used as a condiment. A pepper flavour, it is stronger and more pungent than black pepper. It can be used whole or ground into a powder and used as a table seasoning. A light roasting brings out more of the flavour. It is an ingredient of the famous Chinese “five spice” mixture.
The berries should be gently roasted to release aromatics before crushing with a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder. If a fine powder is desired, sieve to remove the husks and stalks. Store in airtight containers, out of sunlight.
Medicinal use of Szechuan Pepper:
Astringent, diaphoretic, emmenagogue. The pericarp is anaesthetic, diuretic, parasiticide and vasodilator. It is used in the treatment of gastralgia and dyspepsia due to cold with vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, ascariasis and dermal diseases. It has a local anaesthetic action and is parasiticide against the pork tapeworm (Taenia solium). The pericarp contains geraniol. In small doses this has a mild diuretic action, though large doses will inhibit the excretion of urine. There is a persistent increase in peristalsis at low concentration, but inhibition at high concentration. The leaves are carminative, stimulant and sudorific. The fruit is carminative, diuretic, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. The seed is antiphlogistic and diuretic. A decoction of the root is digestive and also used in the treatment of snakebites. The resin contained in the bark, and especially in that of the roots, is powerfully stimulant and tonic.
Cultivation of Szechuan Pepper in Nepal:
Timur is naturally grown, as well as a transplanted shrub, in the barren lands and forests (community, leaseholds, and private), and is regarded as a prioritised commodity for export with its potential of trading in raw and processed form for Indian markets and producing oil for European markets. About 850 to 1,100 MT of timur is collected annually in Nepal with India as the principal buyer that purchases about 80 per cent in raw form. Some European countries namely France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and UK have a demand of about 150 Kg timur oil from Nepal, which despite being a small amount, is a good indication of the market expansion in developed countries. China also poses as another country for market expansion as timur is extensively used as a flavoring agent in food in the country.
In Nepal, about 20,000 households are engaged in timur value chain with an annual revenue generation of about NRs 100 million from its sale. The collection practice is primitive and not scientific; usually the poor, women and children collect timur in their leisure time manually by hands and sticks; and sometimes using traditional weapons for cutting stems and branches. In open access areas, early harvesting and lopping off of the branches or stems prevail, often resulting into fungus infestation in dried fruit and decrease in fruit production of the plant.
Courtesy of Jadibuti Association of Nepal (JABAN)