Once banned in the US as they were thought to carry citrus canker, sichuan (or szechuan) peppercorns have been available here since 2005. Sichuan peppercorns don't actually come from a pepper plant, but are the dried red-brown berries of a type of ash tree. The berries are dried and then sold whole or crushed to a powder.
Sichuan peppercorns are a key ingredient in Chinese cooking. They have an unique, tangy taste and aroma. They are not pungent like black peppers, but have a lemony taste. They are spicy and can bring a numbing feel to the mouth and lips. Generally, they are added last when used in cooking. Only the husks are used, and are often toasted beforehand.
They can be found at Asian markets or ordered online at places like Penzey's or Import Food.
(Image:Smax Specialty Foods)