Szechuan peppercorns: Fragrant peppercorns native to Northern China. Why they were banned: The peppercorns were said to harbor a canker that could damage citrus plants. But in early 2004 the USDA decided that heat treating could render the canker harmless, and so heat-treated peppercorns are now allowed back in. Why folks dig them: Because they impart a fruity flavor, nice bite and a tingly numbing sensation when authentic and fresh. How to get them: You can count on the tingle of real Szechuan peppercorns in dishes at Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S. Archer Ave.; 312-326-5040 and 1331 W. Ogden Ave., Downers Grove; 630-663-0303). Any of the dishes called "ma la" should have the peppercorns, often soaked in oil that dresses chicken or pork or other meats. Ma la cabbage is often served as a free appetizer at the Chinatown Square location.
Bonnie Trafelet, Chicago Tribune