Despite the name, Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns and therefore, not related to our common black peppercorns at all! Sichuan peppercorns are the highly aromatic husks of the prickly ash berries which are dried and sold and they look like miniature flowers. ￼
Their claim to fame is their mouth numbing characteristic; you get a tingling sensation on your tongue which sets the stage for the typically spicy dishes found in Sichuan cuisine. That is why, you’ll often (but not always) find them in fiery Sichuan dishes with hot chillies, this mouth numbing trait is believed to reduce the crippling heat of the chillies used, letting diners enjoy the flavours of the dish.
Of course, Sichuan peppercorns are not only used in Chinese cooking, it is also widely used in Tibet as well as some parts of India. There are also different species of the Sichuan peppercorn and you’ll find varieties of it used in various parts of South East Asia, namely Thailand and Indonesia.
The best way to enjoy these peppercorns is to dry roast them on medium-low heat for a couple of minutes until the aroma intensifies, then pound them in a pestle and mortar with a pinch of salt, before adding to the dish as required. Pounding them first reduces the overall tingling sensation, allowing you to enjoy its taste with just a hint of tingle.
You’ll find that I use them quite a lot in my cooking, not necessarily in Chinese recipes: