There are several misconceptions about the Szechuan peppercorn, the dried reddish brown berry also known as fagara or wild pepper. It is not at all related to the black peppercorn or the chili pepper; nor does it "smite you with a heat wave," as the late Waverly Root wrote in his book, "Food" (Simon and Schuster, 1980, 24.95)."
The spice is, rather, strangely numbing, and it has a clean spicy-woodsy fragrance that has made it a hit in China for centuries, and among seasonings, only cinnamon and ginger have been used for as long. Like them, it also has been popular in all regions of China, though it got its name because it is native to Szechuan province and probably was first cultivated there in neolithic times.
Szechuan pepper was once a standard table condiment in China. Wines were even flavored with it, and during the Tang Period (618-907) it was in vogue to take it with tea and clotted cream. When "foreign fagara" or black pepper was introduced from the tropics, Szechuan pepper fell out of favor briefly with gourmets and never regained the popularity it once had. It is still widely used, however, as is regular pepper, though the Chinese, for esthetic reasons, prefer the white peppercorn to the black.
The Japanese season food, usually grilled meats or fatty seafood such as eels, with a close relative of the Szechuan peppercorn called "sansho" -- in fact food writers often confuse the two. Sansho, sometimes called "Japanese pepper," is likewise from a prickly ash. The aromatic sprigs of this shrub, known as "kinome," is the garnish of choice among Japanese chefs.
Szechuan pepper commonly seasons roasted meats and poultry in Chinese cooking and is used to good effect with some seafood. "Salt and Pepper Squid" offered by some local Chinese restaurants is a tasty example. "Seasoned salt," a mixture of Szechuan pepper, white pepper and pan-roasted salt, is a popular accompaniment to fried and roasted foods. "Seasoned oil," made by heating Szechuan peppercorns in peanut oil until they blacken, then straining and discarding the peppercorns, makes a wonderful cooking oil for stir-fried dishes, or it may be used for dressing Chinese salads.
Szechuan peppercorns are carried by specialty shops, though they're best purchased in 8-ounce plastic packages in Chinese markets; they're less expensive and probably fresher. Once home they should be transferred to a covered jar. To make the powder, toast them in a dry skillet over a medium flame until they begin to smoke -- don't worry if a few blacken slightly -- and grind them in a mortar or spice grinder. Store excess powder in a jar with a lid.
Even if you don't cook Chinese food, I highly recommend combining freshly ground Szechuan pepper and black pepper when seasoning meats or poultry to be grilled or roasted. The heightened flavor will be readily apparent.
SIMPLE ROASTED CHICKEN (4 servings)
4 pound chicken
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon szechuan peppercorn powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
1/4 cup chopped parsley or fresh coriander
Two hours before cooking: With a chef's knife or kitchen shears, cut out the backbone of the chicken so it will lie flat. Rub the chicken all over with the soy sauce (this will enhance the golden brown color) and sprinkle with the two peppers and the salt. Allow to sit until ready to cook.
Place the chicken flat on a rack over a roasting pan in a 450-degree oven and roast for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 325 degrees and cook for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the parsley or coriander. Allow to sit 10 minutes before serving. (Note: Prepare the same for grilling.)