Common name: Winged Prickly Ash / Szechuan pepper
Botanical name: Zanthoxylum khasianum
Local name: Jaiur (Khasi)
When you roll the words “Winged Prickly Ash” around in your mouth, you would never be able to guess what it is. Is it a bird, a bee or a fish? Okay, let us tell you – it is a special spice of Meghalaya. You would probably know it by its more common name, Szechuan pepper. This is a produce with huge beneficial properties, besides its use as a culinary ingredient.
Studies say it’s perceived medicinal value includes treatment for rheumatism, arthritis, tooth decay, gastro problems and even diarrhea. Now comes the next surprise when you actually crunch a few of them in your mouth. The sensation you get will be unlike any you have experienced before.
Eaten raw, the very first feeling will be as if your tongue had gone numb! For newbies, their first reaction is visible on their faces. But when added to dishes, the resultant flavor is one which is strong, at the same time mildly pungent and certainly memorable.
Even though there are many spices and fruits of Northeast India that are distinct in their own way, Winged Prickly Ash also known as Szechuan pepper is one of the most uniquely flavored spices of Northeast India.
Wonder what the plant looks like? At first glance, what you will see is a mid-height shrub growing up to about 4 meters. The stem is covered with thorns which have a wide base and taper to needle sharp points.
The leaves are typical of their deciduous family and are dark green in color until they shed during autumn. The fruits are quite small and grow in clusters making harvesting easy, much like grape bunches.
Just like the Kiwi plant, Winged Prickly Ash are dioecious, which means that the flowers are either male or female and only one sex can be found on any one plant. So both male and female plants must be planted in close proximity to produce the spice.
Winged prickly ash branch
Most families in Meghalaya have Winged Prickly Ash shrubs in their backyard. Over the ages, the fruits as well as the leaves have been adapted into our cuisine.
The raw fruits are eaten as is during meals to stimulate the appetite. The dried up version is also used as a condiment. But the most popular use yet of the Winged Prickly Ash is as part of a chutney.
A traditionally fermented fish product called tungtap, along with Winged Prickly Ash is ground into a paste and had as a side dish during lunch or dinner. Our tungtap recipe has been passed down the ages since the Khasis and Jaintias first developed a taste for this strong flavored chutney.
And for those of us who like our fish curry, the fresh young leaves of the plant lend a flavor which not only adds a mouthwatering aroma, but also enhances the overall taste of the dish itself.
The Winged Prickly Ash grows wild and untended in most households. But it also turns out a neat profit for some farmers. When it is first harvested and brought to the markets in August, it fetches around INR 100/kg. But, by the time the supply starts waning in November, the natural laws of demand and supply kicks in, and the price doubles!
Remember this crop needs very little tending – it is a hardy plant which yields a good crop. And any surplus is sun-dried and used just the way the raw variety would have been.
The internet is full of how Winged Prickly Ash has medicinal properties besides its use as a culinary ingredient. If studies are to be believed, then perceived medicinal value includes treatment for rheumatism, arthritis, tooth decay, gastro problems and even diarrhea.
For now, this is a territory yet to be explored and discovered for the Winged Prickly Ash of Meghalaya. Apart from using it as part of our diet, team Zizira is yet to discover any demand for Winged Prickly Ash for its other properties.
Maybe with time, Winged Prickly Ash will find a place in people’s medicine cabinet other than on the kitchen table alone. Till then, go ahead and savor this uniquely flavored spice from the pristine hills of Meghalaya.
Over to you! What were your thoughts when you heard about this spice? We would love to hear. Maybe you knew about it already? Then share with us your first experience! Share your thoughts – you can add them in the comment box you see below.
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