Szechuan cuisine wouldn’t be the same without the Szechuan "peppercorn," which is actually not a pepper at all but is the pinkish-red dried outer husk of the Chinese prickly ash shrub. While Szechuan peppercorn has an unusual fragrance, it is best known for the numbing, tingling sensation it causes around the mouth when eaten, and is often incorporated in five-spice powder, as well as many spicy Szechuan dishes.
In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned imports of Szechuan peppercorns for nearly 40 years, due to concerns it could cause the spread of a citrus canker, seriously damaging citrus crops in Florida, California, and other areas. However, Szechuan peppercorn could be found throughout the country much of this time; officials only began seriously enforcing the ban in the early 2000s.
In January 2004, the U.S. government partially lifted the ban on imports of Szechuan peppercorn that had been heat-treated to kill the bacteria. Nonetheless, many people still have trouble finding this elusive spice. Here are several suggestions on where you can buy Szechuan peppercorn.
While most Asian markets carry Szechuan peppercorn, it can still be hard to find. The problem is that companies selling the spice use different English names on the packaging. Some of these names include dried prickly ash, dehydrated prickly ash, dried peppercorn, flower pepper, Indonesian lemon pepper, as well as others.
The easiest thing to do is to ask your grocer for the spice by its Chinese (Mandarin) name, Hua Jiao—they will know what you’re looking for (and whether or not they carry it). In any event, Szechuan peppercorn is simple to recognize—the distinctive pinkish-red seed husks are sold in clear plastic bags alongside star anise and other Chinese spices and seasonings.
Chinese Herb Shops
Another option is, if you’re in Chinatown, to stop by the Chinese herb shop, as Szechuan peppercorn is used in traditional Chinese medicine. For example, one of the best places to find Szechuan peppercorn in San Francisco's Chinatown is the San Francisco Herb Company.
While you probably won't have much luck searching for Szechuan peppercorn at the local supermarket, many spice merchants now carry it, under the name Szechuan Peppercorn or Szechuan Pepper. In the U.S., probably the best-known spice shop is Penzeys Spices, a national chain with over 50 brick and mortar locations.
Upscale grocery Dean & Deluca also carries Szechuan peppercorn. They have 11 physical stores in select locations across the United States, including New York, Washington, D.C., the Napa Valley in California, Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Of course, there's always the convenient option of shopping for Szechuan peppercorn online. In the U.S., Penzeys ships to all 50 states, with preferential discounts for orders within the contiguous United States. International shipping is available depending on individual customs requirements.
In Canada, Szechuan peppercorn can be ordered online from Calgary-based Silk Road Spice Merchant. Contact them for information on U.S. and international orders.