Teppal or Tirphal (Zanthoxylum rhetsa) is a relatively less known spice compared to its more famous cousin Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum). Use of this spice having slightly larger berries is confined to India’s West coast where it appears in fish dishes.
Though bearing some resemblance to black peppercorns, Szechuan pepper and its relatives do not belong to the pepper family, but are the dried berries of a tree. Teppal grows in grape-like bunches on a thorny tree. When dried, the fruit turns a brownish black and opens up exposing the black seeds which are discarded- only the husk being used.
Teppal is mostly used in fish and some vegetarian dishes, with a paste of coconut and chilies. Contrasting conventional Indian cooking habits, it is normally not combined with other spices since its flavour is considered delicate and gets easily lost among other spices. The dried fruits of Szechuan pepper and its relatives have an aromatic odour that can be described as lemon-like, with more or less pronounced warm and woody overtones. While eating, teppal is not consumed but discarded.
For the more adventurous it is found in the famous Chinese Five Spice Powder which typically uses these five spices: Star anise, fennel, cinnamon, clove, and Szechuan peppercorns. Five Spice Powder is a blend whose presence in foods can be positively haunting, as it elevates fatty, meat dishes to mysterious heights. It warms and cools the tongue all at once and enhances meat's richness while providing enough bite to cut through it all. Even if you don't cook much Chinese food, this is a spice mixture worth trying out.