We are excited to have a Chinese classic in our peppercorn family, Szechuan peppercorns. They are known by many names: Sichuan pepper, Szechwan pepper, Chinese pepper, Flower pepper, Fagara pepper, Anise pepper, yet this spice is not related to black and white pepper, not a “peppercorn” at all. They are the dried berry of the prickly ash tree.
The aroma and flavor of these berries resides in the outer brick-colored husks. The seeds are discarded (except for a few strays) as they are gritty and have a bitter flavor. These berries have a mysterious blended flavor and aroma that is at once woodsy, minty, earthy, eucalyptus-y, citrusy, lavender-y with a cooling sensation. But they are most prized for their mild tingling in the mouth that grows and lingers. They are not hot like peppercorns or spicy like chile, nor are they bitter.
You may use the berries as is or you may toast them for full flavor. Toast in a dry skillet over low to medium-low heat to release their aromatic oils. Stir the berries constantly so all sides are toasted and they do not burn. You will begin to smell the full, flowery, perfume-y, aroma of the spice. It takes about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the skillet at this peak to prevent burning and cool on a plate. The berries will smoke and burn otherwise.
Use the berries in your pepper mill or coffee grinder or you may crush them with a mortar and pestle, the side of a cleaver, or a rolling pin. These berries are used in Chinese cooking, marinating, and curing. They are a fabulous seasoning on seafood, poultry, meats, rice, noodle dishes, eggs, and vegetables. Use the berries whole in stews and braises. Szechuan pepper pairs well with chile and other sweet spices and are a key ingredient in the Chinese 5-spice blend. Store the berries in an airtight jar, away from strong light, sunlight, or heat to preserve maximum flavor.