Once you eat a dish that uses Sichuan peppercorns, you aren't likely to forget it. The tingly mouth sensation produced by the tiny crimson pods -- which are the berries of a tree, the prickly ash, in the citrus family -- is unlike any other. People have compared it to spearmint and electricity, to juniper and novocaine, but no analogy quite works. It's most often paired with chili peppers, in Sichuan cuisine, to create an effect called ma la, often translated as spicy and tingly. When it's done right, there are few better flavors in all of food.
For that reason, it's no surprise that when Bret Thorn, of Nation's Restaurant News, asked chefs around the country about their experiences with Sichuan peppercorn, he got a lot of enthusiastic responses. Thorn found people at both Western and Chinese restaurants who extolled the benefits of the peppercorn in dishes across the menu, from salad to dessert.
What makes the national enthusiasm remarkable is that it comes just a few years after it looked like Sichuan peppercorns might leave the country altogether.
Import of the spice was banned in 1968, out of fear that it would spread a bacterial disease, citrus canker, that can be ruinous for citrus trees. (The prickly ash tree was known to harbor the disease in China, and it was unclear whether it could be spread via peppercorns.) Enforcement was lax enough that many restaurateurs were able to get a steady supply of peppercorns -- until about 2003, when the USDA cracked down. Chefs were left high and dry, and good Sichuan cuisine became an increasingly difficult prospect.
Then, in 2005, the ban was lifted altogether, at least for peppercorns heated to 170 degrees, to kill bacteria. That paved the way for something like a national Renaissance in Sichuan cuisine -- in evidence every time a mouth-tingling plate of razor clams with Szechuan peppercorn pesto is served at Manhattan's Szechuan Gourmet.