No. (Anticlimax alert.) We were just worried it would infect citrus trees with canker.
The end result for me is that for my whole life in the States I thought I was already eating Sichuan peppers. For example, I'd had twice-cooked fish absolutely slathered with dry peppers, such that it appeared as though the cook had accidentally knocked a shelf full of them into my take-out container.
These were not Sichuan peppers, however. I learned this only when I tasted the real thing for the first time in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
My boyfriend's ex-host-brother, who was showing us around, had been briefed on the reason I was traveling around China, and tested me out almost within the first half hour of meeting me.
"You say you want to try everything?"
"I can buy you pig stomach sandwich?"
It was almost 100 degrees outside and heat shimmers rolled off the sidewalk in bursts. We ambled, sweating and rolling ice cubes around in our mouths, over to what our host assured us was the best hotpot restaurant in town Like any hotpot restaurant worth its capsaicin, they informed us the wait would be an hour, then retrieved us from the teahouse next door within 15 minutes.
I surveyed the scene. Guys were hunched over their steaming pots, shirts rolled up in the back all the way to their necks, sweat pouring down their backs and pooling in the notches of their belts. Some of them just gave up decorum entirely and removed their shirts altogether, creating a strange and surreal atmosphere where ladies in cute summer dresses primly perched in their seats next to shirtless, butt-crack-revealing men in what was really a pretty fancy-looking establishment, especially for China: wood-paneling, stone detail, fake plants and all.
I wonder how many pepper species went extinct to feed us that night?
I was pretty much expecting my tastebuds to burn to death upon mere contact with anything that had been dunked, let alone cooked, in that fire pit. I took a breath, filled my bowl, mashed an ungodly amount of garlic and cilantro to it, as I observed my host do, and took a bite.
My whole mouth started to feel like someone was holding a lightly charged battery to it, or a buzzing massager. My lips started to tingle. I felt like I was at the dentist's office and the first shot of Novocaine was just starting to kick in.
I looked at my bowl.
Squid, lotus, intestine, shortrib, sweet potato.I took another bite.
By then, I could feel hardly any burning at all. I tasted flowers, and wood, and something almost medicinal. I felt sweat start beading around my hairline. I was drooling like it was spicy, sweating like it was spicy, and my nose was running like it was spicy, but the spice had been dulled. Somehow, the pepper had managed to block the pain, but leave in the part of capsaicin that enhances other flavors.
An hour later, I was absolutely drenched, exhausted, full to brimming, and understood fully why one would want to eat a scorching dish served in a scorching climate in a room full of sweaty, loud people drinking beer. I can't explain it, but I understood it.
(I should mention that the pepper's properties were not always as blissful in other dishes. When infused too strongly into oil, for example, the effect became so pervasive that it was unsettling. Eating what looked like an innocuous plate of something translated only as 'empty-heart-vegetable', my throat slowly became so thoroughly numb that I no longer retained control over my swallowing muscles at all and had to wait, dousing my senseless throat with water, for half an hour before I could eat again.)
But when it gets truly hot now, when my skin starts prickling and sweat beads start forming on my forehead, half of me still craves a passion fruit smoothie (sinh tố chanh dây, if I properly credit the little Vietnamese stands that instilled that craving in me).
But the other half longs for a clamoring, bubbling, burning, numbing, buzzing, woodsy, flowery hotpot full of Sichuan peppers.
Where to find dishes made with Sichuan pepper in Orange County:
I have no idea. If you find out, I'd love to hear about it. Even exclusively Sichuan restaurants like Chong Qing Mei Wei in Irvine don't seem to use it in the same way (though I highly recommend eating there anyway). Their Chongqing hotpot burns like lava without the relief of numbing.