For years, I have wanted to harvest the fruits of Northern Prickly Ash. When looking through a cookbook, I saw Sichuan peppercorns listed with the latin name. Studying herbalism at the time, the genus name seemed very familiar. Cross-referencing, I found that it was prickly ash. I contacted a field biologist with the DNR where I was living at the time in Bloomington, IN. He told me of an area where I could find some, but said that there were only a few trees and that he hadn't been there for a few years. I walked the entire creek, not finding any. It was past the southern part of the range where the range map makes a few ink splatters. The following years, I was living farther north that the tree range. Come now to last year, I was leading a wild edibles plant walk with my friend Maria. I was mentioning plants that got skimmed over in the U.S. but that are used commonly elsewhere. Northern prickly ash was one that I mentioned. Jim Neeval, a person in the class, mentioned having harvested some and that they definitely had a lemony flavor. He drew a map of some spots near where he lived for me to go harvest some. They were already coming to an end at the time last year.
This year, it worked out to harvest some! I contacted Jim about harvesting some in the area. I was driving from Indiana to my home in Duluth and had a few hours for a detour. We spent the morning harvesting and to my surprise he gave me what he harvested! I ended up with half of a standard paper grocery bag full. What we harvested was JUST ripe. The seeds were still inside. I crushed up a half pint jars worth and mixed it with salt as one preparation. I am drying all of the rest. The seed is popping out of each as it dries. The texture of the seed is worth ridding the berry of before grinding. I will need to go through and remove the seeds and the stems. Its a pretty good haul, and am already planning for an all day harvest next year, maybe two day.
The flavor is very citrus-y with a building numbing feel. The fruit is like if you squished the zest of a citrus fruit down to the seed, forgoing the bitterness and the juicy inside. This gives way to a concentration of aromatic oils. There are flavor compounds in common such as citronellal, citronellol, and lemonene. These compounds are found in many commonly eaten citruses. Lemonene is found in lemon verbana, lemongrass, lemon thyme, etc. The tingling feeling is caused by hydroxy alpha sanshool. Quoting Harold McGee speaking of sanshool compounds: "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, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion." Though there definitely is a feeling of putting a nine volt battery on the tongue with some vibrations, that does nothing to describe the pleasantness of the experience. The strong citrus flavor with a very slow building numbing has a complexity not commonly found in a single spice. You get hit with the citrus and almost as evenly as it is fading, the sanshools come in and hit the same level - all in about a minute's time.
This tree is a member of the citrus family. The genus has been used extensively in Asia. Most well known are Sichuan peppercorns and sansho (Japan). Members of the same genus are used in Nepal, Tibet, India, and Indonesia. Most commonly, the fruits are what are used as the seasoning. They are commonly toasted before use in China, while just dried and ground in Japan. In Japan, the young leaves are eaten and known as kimone. The leaf is usually added on top of food as a flavorful garnish, but they are also used for a pesto-like miso and komone combo. Also in Japan, the green unripe fruit are pickled. The dried fruits are ground and added to shichimi, which is a spice mix for sprinkling on finished dishes. For a little further play in Japan the suribachi (or pestle of a mortar and pestle) is traditionally commonly made of the wood of the tree. In the book Kansha, by Elizabeth Andoh, she mentions kona-zansho as a mix of the dried green and ripe fruits.
I'm looking forward to using prickly pepper for some novel pairing with wild and otherwise local foods as well as using it in place of it's counterparts in traditional Asian dishes.