You know you’ve got it bad for a new spice when, immediately following your first acquaintance, you find yourself thumbing cookbooks and searching recipe sites for excuses to use it again. Such has been our love-at-first-bite relationship with Szechwan (or Sichuan or Szechuan) peppercorns, which are not truly of any pepper family, but an exotic berry belonging to the Zanthoxylum genus, whose other members includes citrus. Different members of this clan feature in the cuisine of China, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, and India.
They have a somewhat floral note, and while they do numb your mouth and tongue in an intriguing way, they convey very little actual heat, so in most cases you’ll combine them with a bit of crushed red chili pepper. Crush the husks in a mortar and pestle, or put them through a spice grinder until they resemble a coarse powder. Sauté in neutral oil with a bit of chili pepper, a pinch of salt, and another pinch of sugar. Add some crushed garlic at the end and cook briefly, stirring for a few seconds. We like—okay, love—them in peanut-y noodles with cabbage. Adventurous chefs are also using them in candied nuts, peach tarts, and shortbread. Find them at Asian food stores and gourmet shops.