Sichuan Peppers

Sichuan pepper is a misnomer, however. These aren't peppers at all. The spiciness in real chilli peppers comes from capsaicin, the active chemical in pepper spray, and the heat of a pepper, measured in Scoville units, depends on the amount of capsaicin in it.

The huajiao as the Sichuan "pepper" is known in Chinese -- literally flower pepper -- derives its zingy, spicy hotness from a different chemical, known as hydroxy-alpha-sanshool to the scientists among us, not from capsaicin like normal peppers.

And for the spice-loving gourmets in us, luckily the entire Sichuan province has perfected the art of cooking with huajiao. You can use it in kungpao chicken; you can mix it with peanut butter for the rich dandan mian noodle broth; you can stew beef in water with huajiao to make shuizhu niurou as the Druzhba restaurant, which serves many Sichuan dishes, does for its customers.

The trouble is finding huajiao in Moscow. Hediard fine foods and the Beliye Oblaka alternative goods-cum-new age store used to carry huajiao, but said they now do not. Only the latter sells anything remotely similar: pink Indian peppercorns. Put K Sebe, another store carrying foreign spices, said it does not have huajiao, either.

The manager of Druzhba, Liu Xiangfei, said there is only one place to buy huajiao now: the Yevrazia market at Izmailovo. And all Yevrazia market vendors agreed that the spice was not available any other place in Moscow.

Three brands, all in 50-gram plastic packets, were found at most of the myriad of spice stalls in the market. The Fei Hua and Bai Wan Lin brands sell for 20 rubles each and Beijing Xin Shi Cheng Long for 30 rubles. But, as with all enterprising -- or cunning -- businessmen, prices vary according to how they size you up, and you should expect to pay slightly more or less. Make sure you ask for huajiao, as they are called in Chinese, and not Sichuan peppers or Sichuan lajiao.

The Jiuzhou Shipin store carries all manner of Chinese spices and caters especially to bulk buyers from restaurants, though they do sell individual packets, too. After you enter the market, turn left and watch out for their hanging red sign with gold lettering, which has their name only in Chinese. Line No. 1 is an entire row of spice and Chinese foodstuff sellers, most of whom carry the Fei Hua brand of huajiao.