Szechuan cooking is spicy, yes. But don’t lay that on the Szechuan peppercorns. They’re not spicy hot. What they are is a culinary experience like no other.
Six things to know about Szechuan pepper before you give it a go.
1.) Szechuan pepper is not spicy hot like a chile pepper. It’s not a chile pepper at all, in fact.
2.) It’s not peppercorny in any kind of black or white peppercorn way. It’s not actually from a pepper plant.
3.) The “peppercorns” are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush. Yes, Szechuan pepper is its own funky little monkey, thank you very much.
4.) You experience Szechuan pepper as a peculiar tingling sensation. Food-science guy, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, equates the sensation to a mild electrical shock: “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue.” So, you know, don’t eat Szechuan while taking a bath.
5.) When eating Szechuan pepper, you may feel a bit…well, odd. Harold McGee says the pepper seems to mess with different types of nerve endings simultaneously, inducing “sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive,” and leaving you with an overall experience that could “cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” That sounds troubling. But the feeling is actually kind of invigorating. It’s a strange, kind of exciting combo. Pop rocks in the mouth! Tingling tongues are primed for the spicy heat of the actual chile peppers.
6.) Szechuan pepper is a key component of Chinese Five Spice. This spice blend is a good entrée into the world of Szechuan pepper, mingled as it is among friends. What are the other four spices? Fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves.
OK, now let’s dig into some recipes. Some call for full-on Szechuan peppercorns. Others call for Chinese Five Spice, which, because it’s a blend of spices, may not reveal the full funkiness of the Szechuan pepper. But it’s a tasty, tingly introduction.