I don’t claim to know anything about Chinese cuisine, which is why it’s taken me so long to know the awesomeness that is Szechuan peppercorns.
I first was exposed to these delicious pink berries while ordering take-out lunch at Heavenly Bamboo, near my former office in Midtown Manhattan. I’d gobble down the “chicken with chili pepper” dish, not knowing what spice was making my lips delightfully numb. A year or so later, while dining with friends at Yunnan Kitchen, I discovered it was something aptly called “numbing spices.” More research revealed that it was specifically Szechuan peppercorn, which is not actually a pepper but a dried berry (pictured above) of a tree related to the prickly ash. When combined with chile peppers, Szechuan peppercorns produce a hot tingling effect in your mouth — making you reach for more even as you lose feeling in your lips and tongue!
I still did nothing in particular with this information until stumbling across this recipe in the New York Times, Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry, which calls for Szechuan peppercorns. Truth be told, the recipe isn’t the greatest….when I tried making it, I was disappointed in the lack of punch (next time: add MORE Szechuan peppercorns and chile peppers). But I’m glad the recipe prompted me to search out Szechuan peppercorns, which I discovered at my trusty Kalustyan’s on Lexington (at 28th). I’ll need to experiment more before posting a recipe. But in the meanwhile, if you haven’t already…search out restaurants that serve dishes with Szechuan peppercorns, and give them a try. You’ll be hooked!