Uncle Wen had one peculiar habit. He never travelled anywhere without a tiny box of dried ‘Jaiur’ - Winged Prickly Ash a.k.a. Szechuan pepper. It was his lifeline, he declared.
You see, Uncle Wen suffered from low blood pressure and diabetes. He had frequent toothaches (he ate too much 'kwai'- raw areca nuts with betel leaves and lime). Add to that, he had gastric problems too.
A traditional healer suggested a simple remedy. Chew a few berries of dried Jaiur several times a day and all the problems would vanish one by one within a year. They did. But the habit of chewing Jaiur persisted with him till the end.
When the fruit's in season uncle Wen chomped away berry after berry throughout the day. Winged Prickly Ash or Jaiur or Szechuan pepper has many names. Toothache tree, yellow tree, Chuan Jiao, and even Heracles' club are some other names.
The berries, whether raw, ripe or dried, are the most consumed. Some people in Meghalaya – my wife too - keep a bunch of green berries (when in season) on the dining table. They pop a berry or two along with their meals. This adds to a meal's flavour, they say.
Now not everybody would cherish Jaiur at first chew. The taste is a bitter-sour, mildly pungent blend that tingles. It leaves the mouth numb - tongue and lips and all - for a good while afterwards.
The taste is indescribable, unlike any encountered. It's definitely not everyone's idea of a favourite aftertaste. But once you get the experience it will stick on you. Khasi folk of Meghalaya swear by Jaiur's flavour enhancing prowess. It can flavour everything: rice, meat, fish and vegetables.
Tungtap is one famous condiment spiced with Jaiur. Once a portion hits the tongue the taste buds open up to a new kind of sensation. The experience sends you salivating to the level you end up eating more than normal!
Winged Prickly Ash tree is a species of the genus Zanthoxylum and family Rutaceae, the citrus family. There are over 250 species of Zanthoxylum all over the world. British botanist J. D. Hooker first recorded the species as Zanthoxylum khasianum Hookerii. That was at Mairang in 1875. This species is a native of Assam and South-Central China. Zanthoxylum is a dioecious plant, meaning the tree is either male or female. So to fertilise, both male and female trees must grow alongside.
Szechuan pepper has culinary fame as one among the ingredients of the Chinese Five-Spice combine. Cinnamon, cloves, star anise and fennel are the other spices. The tree itself is a small, unassuming deciduous shrub. It loves moist, well-drained soil in the semi-shade or out of it. It thrives mostly in the hot and moist valleys of the Himalayan and sub-Himalayan regions at altitudes of 1000-2000 metres.
Different species of the genus also grow in many parts of the world. The stems are spiky and branches thorny. Leaves are oblong and lance-like. Flowers are greenish yellow and ripe fruits are reddish. Seeds are small and shiny black, lying underneath an outer coat or husk. When deseeded the coat becomes Szechuan pepper spice. Tender leaves are also used to make condiments.
Different societies use the plant in varieties of ways. Some make decoctions of the bark, leaves and seeds. Others eat the raw fruits. It helps alleviate toothaches, relieve flatulence or gas (as carminative), or ease indigestion. Elsewhere people use it as a cure for cold and fever, asthma and bronchitis. It helps relieve painful varicose veins and rheumatism too, even cholera and dyspepsia.
In Meghalaya, they use Jaiur fruits to relieve toothaches and treat gum problems. They also combined with other herbs to cure smallpox. In Nagaland, they use the seed for indigestion and ailments of the stomach. The bark has deodorant, antiseptic and disinfectant properties. That makes it great for cleaning teeth.
Traditional medicine systems make use of the bark, seeds and fruits. The seeds are effective in relieving fever and dyspepsia; and the fruits help alleviate dental problems, removing scabies and eliminating roundworms. Below are some medicinal benefits of Szechuan pepper:
Seems like a tall order for such an unassuming plant. The reality is Winged Prickly Ash gives out essential oils with wide applicability.
The versatility of the plant is amazing. Every part of it is useful: roots, shoots, fruits, branches, flowers and leaves. The plant is so easy to grow and it is renewable many times over.
Scientists have done a good amount of biochemical research on the species. This includes research on seeds, bark, branches and leaves. The many compounds isolated have medicinal as well as non-medicinal uses.
Some compounds are:
The plant also contains nutrients, minerals and antioxidants that have incredible health benefits. Some components are vitamin A, potassium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc and phosphorus. From the bark come the alkaloid berberine, resins and volatile oils.
The carpels yield a volatile oil, resin, yellow acid. They also release xanthoxylin, a solid crystalline compound with a camphor odour. Zanthoxylum essential oil has yellow to olive-yellow colour. The odour is woody, pungent and mildly spicy, somewhat like green pepper.
Two main constituents of the essential oil are linalool and limonene. Linalool has anti-inflammatory, anti-epileptic, sedative, and analgesic properties. It also has anti-depressant, anti-psychotic and anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) properties.
Medicine and food are not the only areas of use for Jaiur. The essential and volatile oils find wide uses in the perfume and hygiene products industry. The capability to dissolve oils and citrusy fragrance makes it ideal as compounds in cleaning solvents and scents.
Some important uses are:
Call it Winged Prickly Ash, Jaiur or Szechuan pepper its potential remains astonishing. It is also within reach and great for health and nutrition. Somehow it remains one of the most underutilised indigenous crops in existence. It is time to change all that now. That’s why we at Zizira keep bringing up treasures like these from the wild to present to you. Know more about us at www.zizira.com.