You can call it a peppercorn all you like, but the peppery ingredient that puts the buzz in Szechuan-style cooking actually isn't one.
Though it resembles and is used similar to black peppercorns, Szechuan pepper isn't a peppercorn at all. Rather, it is the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree. And you don't need to be a heat fiend to love it. Because while it does have a peppery bite, its real power is in the tingling, zingly feeling it leaves on your tongue, rather than a true heat.
In Chinese cooking, the Szechuan pepper often is used with meats and is a basic component of five-spice powder. In this weeknight-friendly beef recipe, we combine the Szechuan pepper with spicy chili garlic paste for a dish that will jumpstart your mouth. Serve it over rice or noodles.
Start to finish: 30 minutes (plus marinating)
1 pound flank steak, thinly sliced across the grain
3 tablespoons chili garlic paste
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, crushed
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin or rice wine
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2 carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
3 scallions, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
Rice or noodles, to serve
Place the flank steak slices in a zip-close plastic bag. Add the chili garlic paste, ginger and Sichuan pepper. Seal the bag, then massage the seasonings into the meat. Refrigerate and allow to marinate at least 2 hours, and up to overnight.
When ready to cook, in a large, deep skillet or a wok over high, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the beef and sauté for 8 minutes, or until the beef is browned and starting to dry. Add the soy sauce, mirin, celery, carrots and scallions. Cook for another 4 minutes, or until the vegetables are crisp tender. Serve over noodles or rice.