As I've been working my way through the Sichuan cookbook, I've also been building our pantry, so that we now stock most everything that the recipes call for. But it's a process.
When I tried to make Dan Dan noodles, for example, the recipe called for several things I didn't have on hand: ground pork, ya cai, chili oil and sichuan pepper. So, I substituted soft tofu for the ground pork; marinated lemon peel for the ya cai, sambal oelek and sesame oil for the chili oil, black pepper for the sichuan pepper. I also noted down all the stuff that I wished I'd had and bought them the next time we went to the Asian store in the city. Pickled mustard greens (the true ya cai) in the fried tofu soup was a revelation. There really is no substitute, so we now always stock it. In general, that has been the case for most ingredients that Fuchsia Dunlop calls for.
And so, I picked up dried sichuan peppers with anticipation. It ought to be much better than using black peppers, no? It wasn't. It was hard and had an unpleasant, crunchy texture. Perhaps one ought to grind the pepper corns before using it? The next time I made Dan Dan noodles (i..e yesterday), I ground the peppercorns in a spice grinder before making the sauce. Now, the dish had a nice aroma, and the taste was good -- better than black peppers -- but unfortunately, the gritty texture remained.
Finally, I decided to look up how to use sichuan peppers and Wikipedia helpfully notes:
Recipes often suggest lightly toasting the tiny seedpods, then crushing them before adding them to food. Only the husks are used; the shiny black seeds are discarded or ignored as they have a very gritty sand-like texture.Only the husks! Aha! Maybe I ought to read up on unfamiliar ingredients before I start cooking ... you think?
p.s. In case you don't cook, the title of this post may make no sense. Using just the husk is very unusual. There are spices (such as cardamom) where you discard the husk and use the seed, but this is the first spice I know of where you discard the seed and use the husk. It's as if one were to keep the bathwater and throw out the baby.