Any food that can make your tongue tingle has got to be worth a taste.
I’m not talking a seltzer-like zippiness or even a searing chili-like heat. I mean literally tingling because your tongue is at once numb and buzzingly alive.
That is the power of the Sichuan pepper (also called Sichuan peppercorn). But why would you want to (albeit mildly) numb your mouth? Because aside from the basic coolness of a tingling tongue, that sensation also changes the way you taste food seasoned with the pepper, adding a wonderful punchy vibrancy and warmth unlike anything else.
First, the basics. Despite appearances, Sichuan pepper is not a true peppercorn. It is the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree. And chances are you’ve had it before. Sichuan pepper is a basic component of Chinese five-spice powder.
As its name suggests, the spice has left a serious thumbprint on the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province. It also is used in Japan, where it is called sansho. The taste has been compared to lime zest combined with black pepper, cardamom and hot peppers. The tingling is likened to an electric charge.
In Chinese cooking, Sichuan pepper is toasted before being crushed or ground. This mutes the spice’s citrus flavors and heightens its woody notes, making for an excellent pairing with meats.
To toast the spice, add it to a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Cool, then grind and use.