Zanthoxylum pepper or Prickly ash pepper
Zanthoxylum pepper or prickly ash pepper is a spice that is harvested from the seeds from several plants that belong to the global genus Zanthoxylum in the family Rutaceae.
In China, Sichuan pepper is harvested from the seeds of Z. simulans, Z. bungeanum, or Z. armatum, collectivelly called Chinese prickly ash plants. In Japan, Sansho pepper is harvested from Z. piperitum, or the Japanese prickly ash pepper.
In Vietnam, prickly ash pepper is harvested from Z. rhetsa, Z. acanthopodium, Z. armatum, and Z. nitidum, and is a major spice in northwestern Vietnamese cuisine. Collectively, these Zanthoxylum seeds are grouped as hạt tiêu rừng, which literally means “forest pepper”. Among them, Z. rhetsa is the Vietnam’s most prominent prickly ash pepper.
Z. rhetsa, Indian prickly ash, is known as mắc khén in Vietnam. Z. rhetsa is a woody, straight tree with thorns on the trunk, feather-shaped leaves with serrated edges. Z. rhetsa tree has gray-white flowers in clusters. Its flowers have a very fragrant smell due to the essential oil of the tree. From September to November, the tree will bloom and bear fruits. The whole bunch of peppercorns are harvesteda and hung in the kitchens of local people in mountainous northwestern Vietnam. Commercial products are made from sun-dried seeds (3-4 days).This is probably the most common prickly ash pepper in Vietnam. Mắc khén pepper is described as having the aroma of orange zest, and mild pungent taste. The price of mắc khén pepper is also higher than other prickly ash peppers. Sometimes the seeds of other Zanthoxylum plants are also mislabeled as mắc khén pepper.
Together with gioi pepper, mắc khén pepper forms the cultural characteristics, indigenous traditions of northwestern Vietnamese people. Mắc khén pepper is the soul of local dishes: grilled gamey meat (including fish, chicken, pig, beef), smoked and dried dishes (such as buffalo meat, beef, pork, fish, sausage). Mắc khén pepper is also one of the main ingredients of the local chẳm chéo sauce/condiment.