A bit of a misnomer, Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. In fact, they are the husk of a dried berry from a small citrus tree called a prickly ash. And… while Sichuan peppercorns are often thought to contribute that iconic heat associated with Sichuan cuisine, they actually contribute very little on that spectrum.
So if Sichuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns and really don’t bring a lot of heat, then what do they bring to the table? They numb, they tingle, they’re even said to ‘vibrate’ or ‘buzz’ in your mouth, like a carbonated drink. The best way I can describe it (and stay with me here, I know this is going to sound a little strange) – you know how your foot feels when it falls asleep (before that painful moment when it starts to wake-up)? Well… that’s kind of what your mouth feels like. Numb, a little tingly, and not quite sure if the sensation you’re feeling is hot or cold. Though not to worry, it’s not like the numbing you would receive at the dentist. As amusing as that might be, you’re not going to be slurring your words and drooling all over yourself 😛
It may sound a little bizarre, but when used in the right proportions, it’s actually a very pleasant experience. It’s even said that the numbing qualities of the peppercorns allow the diner to enjoy the more subtle flavors of the chili peppers. In fact, Sichuan peppercorns enhance the salty, sweet, sour, and smoky symphony of flavors going on in this dish. So go on… grab some Sichuan peppercorns. You’re mouth will literally buzz with delight!
Check a well-stocked Asian grocery store or order online, like Penzeys.