This mysterious, underused but established spice goes by a variety of names: Sichuan pepper, Japanese pepper, Aniseed pepper, Prickly ash, and others. The plant is said to belong to the citrus family – Zanthoxylum simulans.
Tibetans, though, call this burgundy pigmented and uniquely flavorful spice “Yerma” (གཡེར་མ), and in our cooking it enhances any dish. Because its tingly, lemony, and numbing pungency is so distinctly different from other pepper varieties, I call this classic Tibetan spice “All-in-one-flavor-extravaganza.”
There are five Yerma trees in the garden of my family home, and three at our old wooden house where Grandma ruled while I was growing up. As with most Tibetan families in Rebgong, Yerma trees are usually planted in the garden corners, along the clay walls. With dark green, narrow-shaped leaves, and spiny trunks that grow to about ten feet high, the plants are similar to rose bushes in the sense of thorniness and high fragrance at their peak. The fruit is about five mm in diameter. Although growing them along the walls make it easier to position Mother’s ladder to pick the segmented berry fruit from higher up, I presume the grown-ups may also like the sense of security and protection around the house.
My siblings and I played an important part in the harvesting of the fruit because our small hands were uniquely suited to slip through the needled branches. And we had fun being an important part of a tradition. Once gathered, Grandma and Mother dried the berries in the shade, often indoors, to retain the oil, aroma and red hue. They permeated the entire house with a delectable, sensational aroma. The husks (outer coat) and seeds naturally split and come apart when dry, and the husks were then stored in a cool place. The seeds were discarded unless Grandma saved some to start a new tree.
And Grandma never missed an opportunity to send some to my Father in Rongbo, where he worked weekdays, to the nomadic families where Grandmother originally came from and to other friends. Nowadays they are shipped to cities within the country, and internationally since my siblings and I live in three different continents.
For daily use, my mother (Ama in Tibetan) toasts Yerma lightly and then grinds them just the way Grandma did, with a pestle and mortar, adding a pinch of sea salt, and then seals the spice in an airtight container. Toasting lengthens both its shelf life and aroma, so Grandma told us.
This “All-in-one-flavor-extravaganza” not only lends a toasty, richly fragrant, and complex note to any dish but is also said to contain essential oils, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
Grandma used Yerma to season all types of dumpling fillings, pasties, hearty noodle soups, and stews, as well as sauces. Apa (father) mixes Yerma with sausages made from yak meat, mutton, and blood sausage. Ama keeps Grandma’s traditions but also flavors some of her dishes adopted from neighboring societies with the spice. And my brother uses them in his creations like hotpot long before their prime ripeness.
Personally, I use the whole husks with chunky meats and pickling, and the ground in almost every dish – stir-frying, vegetables, chicken, stews – occasionally dash of black pepper for a change. With its bold flavors and versatility, Yerma helps me shy away from having 108 spice containers in my cabinet.
Yerma can be bought at spice specialty stores like Penzey’s and some Asian food markets in the U.S., but it will likely be labeled Sichuan Pepper. (Don’t worry, I’ll ask them to relabel the next time I stop by. But until then, look for a spice starting with Szechuan or Sichuan, if you are ever inclined to buy some.) It may appear more brownish in color because it is heated to meet U.S. import regulations.
Over to you. Have you used Yerma before?