Szechuan cuisine wouldn’t be the same without the Szechuan "peppercorn." It is found in dishes such as Dan Dan noodles, dry-fried chicken, and Hong Kong salt shrimp. It is often incorporated in five-spice powder, as well as many spicy Szechuan dishes. While the Szechuan peppercorn has an unusual fragrance, it is best known for the numbing, tingling sensation it causes around the mouth when eaten. Contrary to its name, it is actually not a pepper at all. Instead, it is the pinkish-red dried outer husk of the Chinese prickly ash shrub.
This important Chinese ingredient may be difficult to find due to a previous ban importing the spice. But if you know where to look and what to look for, you should have better luck.
The Peppercorn Ban
In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned imports of Szechuan peppercorns for nearly 40 years. This was due to concerns that it could cause the spread of a citrus canker which would seriously damage citrus crops in Florida, California, and other areas of the country. Since federal officials only began seriously enforcing the ban in the early 2000s, Szechuan peppercorns could be found throughout the country for some time.
In January 2004, the U.S. government partially lifted the ban on imports of Szechuan peppercorn. This allowed only the peppercorns that had been heat-treated to kill the bacteria into the country. Nonetheless, many people still have trouble finding this elusive spice.
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. When shopping, look for names like dried prickly ash, dehydrated prickly ash, dried peppercorn, flower pepper, and Indonesian lemon pepper. No matter the name, however, 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.
If you are still not having success, simply 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.
While you probably won't have much luck searching for Szechuan peppercorn at the local supermarket, many spice merchants now carry it. It's typically under the name Szechuan peppercorn or Szechuan pepper.
Penzey's Spices and Dean & Deluca are two notable spice or specialty food shops that have been known to carry Szechuan peppercorns, so they are good stores to check with to see if the peppercorn is currently available.
A few retailers also offer Szechuan peppercorns in a salt blend or with other varieties of whole peppercorns. For instance, Penzey's website has listings for both Szechuan peppercorns and roasted Szechuan pepper salt. With the latter, you will want to reduce any salt in the recipe you're using since it's already in the blend.
Of course, there's always the convenient option of shopping for the spice online. A quick search for "Szechuan peppercorn" or "Sichuan peppercorn" will provide you with a number of retailers who offer it. For instance, both Monterey Bay Spice Co. and Spice Sage offer whole Szechuan peppercorns for sale in at least 1/2-pound packages. You will also find some stores that offer the spice already ground.
Chinese Herb Shops
If you're in Chinatown or have a shop nearby, another option is to stop by a Chinese herb shop. Szechuan peppercorn is used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve pain, stop itching, warm the body core, and kill parasites. It may be prescribed by a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor to relieve diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, as well as skin conditions that cause itching. You should never self-prescribe any TCM ingredients as they are often combined with other herbs or spices to create a remedy, but purchasing for culinary purposes from an herb shop is just fine.