Szechwan brown peppercorns (Xanthoxylum piperitum) are altogether different in look, smell, and taste from our familiar Western white and black peppercorns. Often called fagara, Chinese pepper, Szechwan pepper, wild pepper, brown pepper, or “flower pepper” (the literal translation of its common Chinese name), these hollow brown peppercorns are keenly aromatic when whole, and have a pleasantly numbing, as opposed to a spicy or biting, effect. At one time in China it was fashionable to make sachets from Szechwan peppercorns and present them as a token of affection—an idea that I find almost as appealing as cooking with them.
Szechwan brown peppercorns are available in most any Chinese grocery, bagged in small plastic pouches or larger heavy plastic bags weighing up to 8 ounces, and costing a fraction of the price you will pay in a Western gourmet shop. Like star anise, the fragrance of the spice should be clearly discernible through the thinner plastic bag, and the more pronounced the smell, the surer your guarantee of flavor.
Once opened, the peppercorns should be sealed in an airtight jar or tea tin, and kept at room temperature, away from light, heat and moisture. So long as they are fragrant they are good, which will be for many months if stored properly.
In many recipes, the first step to using Szechwan brown peppercorns is to heat them in a dry skillet to release their aromatic oils. Be forewarned that they will smoke as they grow hot. The trick is to use a medium- or heavyweight skillet and keep the heat low so they do not burn.