Check out this good article over at Nation’s Restaurant News by Bret Thorn on Szechuan Peppercorns:
Americans might not be drawn immediately to something that makes their mouth go numb, but Szechuan peppercorns, an Asian spice that does just that, is gaining popularity among some chefs.
Szechuan peppercorns are a key ingredient in Chinese five spice — which usually contains star anise, cloves, cinnamon and fennel as well — and the source of the numbness you might experience when eating a really good kung pao chicken.
“It’s a different spice than most people are used to,” said Steven Devereaux Green, the new executive chef of An New World Cuisine — “An” is Mandarin for “tranquility — in Cary, N.C. “It’s a lighter, more floral peppercorn, and it gives a distinct flavor,” he said.
Technically, Szechuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns at all, but the fruit of the Zanthoxylum piperitum plant, a member of the citrus family — think of the numbing effect a twist from a lemon or orange peel can have. The Chinese call that sensation ma, and if you combine that with la — or the spicy burn of chile peppers — you have the ma la experience that is very much appreciated in Szechuan and other provinces in China’s chile belt, stretching from Yunnan to Hunan.
[Photo Credit: Steamy Kitchen]