Every so often I come across a recipe that calls for just one too many ingredients that I don't have on hand. In such instances, the options are either to hit pause until those ingredients are secured, or make use of a clever substitution. Such clever substitutions are hard to come by, but recently a friend of mine shared what he uses when he needs to capture the vibrating flutter of Sichuan peppers when none are on hand.
Can't Beat the Tingle
Sichuan peppers aren't peppers at all; rather they are the dried husks of fruit of the Chinese prickly ash tree. They are knowm for their mentholated, slightly numbing effect, but don't actually produce a spicy flavor. The numbing effect sets the stage for heat, which is why they are traditionally coupled with fiery chiles in Sichuan cuisine. These tiny husks do carry a light citrusy flavor that often moves into a faint piney scent at the end of a good sniff, but this nuanced aroma is often muted by the heat of the chiles that usually accompany it in a recipe.
A Substitution — Not a Replacement
While the uniqueness of Sichuan peppers can't be captured by another ingredient — after all, so few ingredients produce the radiating numbing effect — a combination of coriander seeds and black pepper are reminiscent of its piney, citrusy taste.
Naturally, the best bet is to keep some Sichuan pepper on hand, but the combination of coriander seeds and black pepper has been useful when I want to capture the flavor of Sichuan peppers rather than the sensation.