Until recently Szechuan Peppercorns were boycotted from the US due to the fact that they carried some weird little bug that we didnt want in our own agricultural products. New technology has been created to deal with all sorts of unwanted critters, allowing previously barred foods safely into the United States. Both Indian mangoes and Szechuan Peppercorns are treated with this new method and, hence, are now landing on US soil.
I received Szechuan Peppercorns from my Mother who shipped them to me from William Sonoma (they arent available via the web last I checked). I am starting to develop an idea of what to do with them after reading about 10 websites. Basically they are an important flavor in Szechuan cooking, duh.
Although they are called peppercorns, they are actually more related to a berry. The outer casing is the aromatic portion and is maroon in color. Unfortunately toasting them, which all the websites claim you have to do to release their aroma (mine were plenty odorous before the toasting, but alas, I am a direction follower), darkens them and dulls their brilliance. After toasting them it is suggested that you also grind them up. I have tasted it both before and after the toast and before and after being ground up; I cant seem to taste a big difference but that may be due to the fact that this spice is just SO pungent.
After tasting it directly, my tongue went numb. The only other time I have experienced something like that feeling is when my Mom had me chew a clove to numb my toothache. Just in case you are wondering, the feeling does return, but I am wondering if it still has this effect when cooked...hmmm.
The websites seem to agree that the peppery-citrusy flavor is best paired with garlic, ginger, and onion. These spices tend to be the cornerstone for a good deal of Asian cooking, so it doesnt take a big leap of faith to follow their suggestions. While the spice websites use the Szechuan Peppercorns on chicken and duck, the several food blogs that have used the spice have made mainly seafood dishes. Shrimp is the big winner in this category and they look gorgeous and wonderfully delicious. Jaden has a breathtaking rendition that can be found here.
While this uniquely flavored spice is traditionally associated with Asian cuisine, I would love to hear suggestions on how to use this spice outside of its typical menu. I cant help but think that someone ought to try a Szechuan Peppercorn ice cream. Have you used this spice before? Is there something you think it would go beautifully with? Drop me a line.