"The peppercorns in Hanyuan County are prized for their fragrance," Yuqing Jin says. Yuqing is a spice vendor at Wukuaishi wholesale market in Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, and has been a peppercorn dealer for nearly two decades.
She stands behind two large heaps of peppercorns—green and red. Around her are stacks of other miscellaneous spices in burlap bags, all sold in bulk in the most vibrant, dazzling colors. It feels like I have been transported to the distant past, where spices were transported en masse via caravans to city vendors like Yuqing.
The thought isn't too far of a stretch. Sichuan, after all, was part of the historic Tea Horse Road—a treacherous winding path through steep mountains dedicated to the transportation of tea and spices from central China to Tibet, Bengal, and Burma.
"There are two types of peppercorn: green and red," Yuqing says. "The green is used for hot pot. Red is for stir-frying." Sichuan peppercorns, which are part of the citrus family and unrelated to common black peppercorns, are beloved for their piquancy. Green peppercorns have an intense floral flavor and can be found bobbing in various hot pots with green chili oil. Red peppercorns are less zesty, but impart a subtle depth to dishes without being overwhelming. They also temporarily numb the tongue thanks to the work of the molecule hydroxy alpha sanshool, which stimulates sensory nerves and creates an electric sensation.
The leaves of the peppercorn tree can be eaten as well. In Sichuan, they're deep-fried in batter. It makes for a wonderful snack; they have the signature citrus taste without the numbing effect.
In the US, the Sichuan peppercorn is still a rather elusive spice. It was banned from 1968 to 2005 because it was found to potentially harbor a bacterial disease called citrus canker. The ban was lifted in 2005—but only on the condition that the peppercorns are heated to kill bacteria.
The unfortunate side effect: People in America are seriously missing out.
"I'll sneak some back in my luggage whenever I visit Sichuan," an owner of a prominent Sichuan restaurant in Los Angeles told me years ago. "The peppercorns at the markets here don't have any flavor."
In Chengdu, the peppercorn is sprinkled on nearly every dish and loved for its numbing effect. Unlike the chili pepper, which comes from South America, the peppercorn is an ingredient that is actually native to Sichuan.
"The most basic ingredients in Sichuan were just ginger and peppercorns," Teresa Jin (no relation to Yuqing Jin) says. "Peppercorns were prominent in local food culture long before chili peppers."
Teresa is the senior tour guide at the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine. The chili pepper came to China's coastal cities in the Ming Dynasty via maritime trade routes from the Portuguese and was initially viewed as a barbaric plant. It wasn't adopted by Sichuan until the early Qing Dynasty, following a massacre by peasant rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong that destroyed the local population. This prompted a massive resettlement of people to the Sichuan basin from all around China. Those immigrants brought with them the chilies, and since then, chilies and peppercorns have been a staple all throughout southwest China.
"The hot and humid weather makes this region especially conducive to spicy food," Teresa says. "Peppers and peppercorns cause you to sweat, which cools you down."
"Qingxi is the town in Hanyuan that you're looking for," Yuqing, the spice vendor, says. "They produce the best peppercorns in the world."
From Chengdu, Qingxi is a four-hour drive southwest up in the mountains. You'll know you're there when you see a rolling expanse of fruit trees and farmers sitting on the streets selling their produce. Peppercorn bushes are in abundance, planted right alongside the fruit trees. Hanyuan fruit, like Hanyuan peppercorns, sells at a premium.
Locals brag that it's a combination of the soil, air, and weather that gives their products the signature kick.
"There's a big difference between night and day temperatures which gives our peppercorn its unique flavor," Minxiao Ren says. Ren is a former peppercorn and fruit farmer who has lived in Qingxi his entire life. I find him sitting outside of his house, idly watching the cars pass by.
He adds: "Other peppercorns are quite stinky."
The farmers in the surrounding area make similar conclusions. Some cite the water; others say the altitude of the mountains is a contributing factor.
But really, a large part of the fame comes from history.
Conveniently located on the historical Tea Horse Road, Qingxi used to be a major trading route for caravans of tea and spices traveling through southwest China. The peppercorns in the area became well-known across the country and were sought after as an imperial tribute through all of the dynasties.
Today, that reputation holds strong. On average, half a kilogram of Hanyuan peppercorns sells for the equivalent of $15 USD—notably more expensive than peppercorns grown elsewhere. The peppercorns are so famous that in 2000, millions of peppercorn seedlings from the region were acquired from locals to be used in other counties. But although Hanyuan peppercorns are famous throughout China, they are no longer the main source of income for locals.
"It's not enough," Ren says. "Peppercorns don't make us as much money as fruit."
Ren walks over to a peppercorn tree by his driveway and pinches one by his fingers. The peppercorns are only slightly red—they won't be ready for harvest until fall.
"You have to carefully handpick them, one by one," he says. "On average we pick [ten kilograms] a day. It's [$0.60 USD a kilogram]. Also the worker fee is about [$12 to $15 USD a day]. It's just not worth it."
Today, fruit farming is the primary source of income for Hanyuan farmers. It's an industry that was jumpstarted three decades ago when a guy named Yongjun Li planted the first white peach crop. It became such a massive success that it created a butterfly effect, prompting other farmers to follow suit. Today, the town produces an abundance of peaches, pears, apples, and cherries.
"Fruit makes us more money," Ren says, referencing the hoards of tourists from Chengdu who will go up to Hanyuan on the weekends just to pick fruit. He says peppercorns only brought him $1,500 USD a year while farming cherries brought in $12,000 USD annually. According to Hanyuan's Department of Agriculture, the total agricultural income of the region was $257 million USD in 2014. Fruit farming accounted for 59 percent of that.
I ask Ren about the biggest change he's seen in Hanyuan over the years.
He goes into a story of a time where houses in the neighborhood were built with clay and where outsiders were seldom seen.
"We had to walk down to the nearest town to sell our peppercorns," he says. "And during the Great Leap Forward, we had to meet a certain quota of peppercorns which was tough."
He goes into his house and brings out a basket of cherries, freshly picked.
"Things are better now," he says. "I retired ten years ago."