Szechuan [Sichuan] pepper is the outer berry pod of a small, prickly ash tree grown in the Szechuan region of China. Somewhat sweet-tart and lemony, Szechuan pepper imparts an anesthetic quality that is one of the most unique and pleasantly shocking experiences in the culinary world. Quite aromatic, but not very hot.
Szechuan pepper is native to northern China, where it was used to spice dishes long before the 15th century introduction of the chili pepper. Despite its "pepper" name, Szechuan pepper is not actually related to either black pepper, nor to chili peppers. Szechuan pepper is an essential ingredient in the Chinese five-spice blend, and in Japanese shichimi.
Szechuan pepper offers an unusual, pungent flavor that begins as warm and lemon-like with woodsy overtones. Star anise and ginger often accompany this pepper in Szechuan cuisine. Szechuan pepper features frequently in Indonesian Batak cooking, and is prominent in Himalayan cuisine [Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan], being one of the few spices that can grow in that climate and region.
Szechuan pepper's complex and unusual flavor can be used to intensify the flavor of fish, poultry, cheese, and vegetables. Substitute Szechuan pepper for regular black pepper to add an exotic twist to recipes.