Sichuan pepper's unique aroma and flavour is not spicy or pungent like black, white, or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth (caused by its 3% of hydroxy alpha sanshool) that sets the stage for hot spices. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, they are not simply pungent; "they produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electric current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion."
Recipes often suggest lightly toasting the tiny seed pods, 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. The spice is generally added at the last moment. Star anise and ginger are often used with it in spicy Sichuan cuisine. It has an alkaline pH and a numbing effect on the lips when eaten in larger doses. Ma-La sauce, literally "numbing and spicy", common in Szechuan cooking, is a combination of Szechuan pepper and chili pepper, and it is a key ingredient in Ma-La hotpot, the Szechuan version of the traditional Chinese dish. It plays also a vital importance in the preparation of other well-known Szechuan dishes such as Mapo tofu, Kung-Po chicken, Shui-Zhu fish and etc.