HOT SPICE: Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns are perhaps the only taste sensation that offers both a taste and a sensation. Unrelated to black pepper or chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns aren't spicy, but they do produce a slightly numb feeling that makes your tongue tingle. They also pack an intense flavor that's somewhere between juniper and a savory version of Pop Rocks. Like absinthe, Sichuan peppercorns were illegal in the US until recently. Unlike absinthe, it was for boring agricultural-safety reasons. Thankfully, the nearly 40-year ban has been lifted, and Sichuan peppercorns are returning to Boston restaurants. They're often paired with chilies for a combination known as ma la, meaning "numbing and hot." Sound weird? It is, but it's also addictive. Try the tongue-ticklingly delicious fresh bamboo shoots with spicy wonder sauce at Sichuan Gourmet (1004-1006 Beacon Street, Brookline, 617.277.4226), dan dan noodles at Thailand Cafe (302 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.492.2494), or the saut�ed bok choy with pickle, mustard, and Sichuan peppercorn relish at East by Northeast (1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617.876.0286). You'll be numb struck.