The Szechuan (or more accurately, Sichuan) peppercorn. To the untrained eye it looks just like a black peppercorn. As you snack on your southwestern Chinese cai (cuisine), you have no reason to suspect the novocaine heading your way. And then it strikes, a slight tickle at first that builds to a spiked numbness. You are thankful for the strange reprieve from the spice from the infinite dried red peppers in this type of cuisine, but your subconscious is confused -- what is the source of this sensation. How could it possibly be from my food?
It's better to learn the mystery of the Sichuan peppercorn before you take a bite. Particularly for those unfamiliar with authentic Chinese cuisine, the peppercorn can cause coughing and a little shock at best, the chance of choking at worst. But for all of the fear this post may have instilled so far, the peppercorn is actually a delightful addition to a meal and one that I now often crave.
I'm reading Top Chef's Gail Simmons "Talking with My Mouth Full" and came across a passage when she first discovered the sichuan peppercorn, during her interview for an assistant position with Vogue's famed food critic Jeffrey Steingarten.
"Have you cooked with Szechuan peppercorns...real ones?"
"I suppose so?" I answered, not totally sure.
He had recently been to China and returned with a small bag of genuine Szechuan peppercorns. He handed one to me. It didn't look at all like what we cooked with at Vong. I put it in my mouth.
My tongue went numb. My lips were no made of pins and needles. My sense of tast was totally wiped out. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, but it was one I had never experienced before.
"That's a real Szechuan peppercorn," Jeffrey said. "They're why Szechuan food is so spicy."
I love this account from Gail because she brings you through the experience of eating the peppercorn for the first time. But I have to take issue with Jeffrey's assessments on one point: it's not the peppercorn that makes Sichuan food spicy. The peppercorn is your relief! Sichuan is known for its scalding hot dried peppers. By numbing your mouth, you can take the heat longer. That's why the peppercorns most common appearance are in Sichuan dish Kung Pao Chicken (gong bao ji ding).
Eager to have your own tasting experience? Head to your local Chinese or Asian market, they are bound to have this special spice. Or try online, like the Spice House. And for a recipe to use your spice in, try this one for Szechuan Beef Shanks.