The Sichuan pepper’s zingy aroma and numbing effect on the tongue is the result of a chemical reaction encouraged by roasting. In its fresh, or green, state, the pepper contains an alkaloid called 3-quinuclidinol (3-QN) that is not actually classified as a true alkaloid. When it is dried or cooked, however, the enzymes present in the pepper cause 3-QN to form a new compound called homoallylisoserotonine (HAS). In fact, it’s this very chemical reaction that gives black tea its distinctive flavor and makes our tongues go numb when we eat Sichuan peppercorns.
Taste buds contain proteins that help identify five different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (or umami). HAS binds to one of these taste receptors and makes it active for several hours afterward. This explains why the taste of Sichuan peppercorns lingers so long on our tongues even after we’ve swallowed them.”
Sichuan peppercorns have a flavor so distinctive, so potent that it has become the calling card for Sichuanese cuisine. In Chinese, we call this an “explosive flavor.”
Sichuan peppercorns are dried berries from the prickly ash tree. They’re reddish-brown in color and covered in pungent hairs that carry their flavor. To the Western palate, they are intensely aromatic and flavorful — to some, even bordering on bitter and hot. But to those familiar with them, they’re simply a classic part of Sichuanese cooking.
Sichuan peppercorns, like all other pepper plants, are berries that grow on trees. They’re picked by hand and sun dried, resulting in a fruit with a black outer skin and a fleshy interior that’s green or red depending on whether the berry is picked when it’s ripe or unripe. At this point, the dried berry resembles something like a raisin.
Tasting a Sichuan peppercorn is like tasting the Platonic ideal of a pepper berry: hot, sharp, and citrusy. The Sichuan peppercorn doesn’t disappoint in the same way that, say, ground black pepper can sometimes be disappointing—as if someone scraped out the insides of a black peppercorn. If you put whole Sichuan peppercorns into your mouth, they explode with flavor. This explosive flavor is what makes them so distinctive and popular in Chinese cuisine.
This flavor comes from an ingredient called S-linalool chemotype which is found primarily in Sichuan peppers but also in West Indian bay leaves.
S-linalool chemotype is also found in coriander seeds as well as some citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons and some types of cinnamon like cassia cinnamon
The Sichuan pepper, or huajiao, as it’s known in Chinese, is a small berry that grows on the prickly ash tree. The berries are dried and ground into powder.
The Sichuan pepper is native to Sichuan province in China, so it’s not surprising that Sichuan cuisine uses it extensively–but that still makes it one of the most important ingredients in Chinese cooking.
The peppercorn’s unique flavor comes from a compound called sanshool. Sanshool is not found in any other plants or spices, though there are some chemical analogues. The flavor of sanshool has been described as citrusy, eucalyptus-like, and minty with a flowery finish. Sanshool induces a tingly-but-not-painful sensation on the tongue; you may also get a slight warming sensation.
In addition to its own flavor, sanshool has an unusual effect on your taste buds: it makes them more receptive to flavors around it. This means that if you add just a little bit of Sichuan pepper to something, it will taste much more flavorful than if you’d added a normal amount.
Sanshool is responsible for the num
Sichuan peppercorns have been traded for their flavor and medicinal properties since the Tang Dynasty (8th century). They are native to Szechwan Province in southwest China, where they grow on trees.
The peppercorns are picked, then soaked in a brine solution. They are dried, then roasted, which gives them their unique flavor. The outer husk is removed and the remaining peppercorn is ground into a powder.
Their flavor is due to a molecule called sanshool. Sanshool is what gives the peppercorn its numbing or “ma” taste that makes your mouth feel cold. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, which helps explain why Szechwan cuisine is popular with people who have sore throats or toothaches. There’s no good explanation why sanshool should give food a numbing sensation; it just does.
My new friend took me to a large, modern supermarket in the city of Chongqing. I was trying to be helpful and speak only English, but I had become accustomed to our rapport back in Chengdu, where we had communicated in Chinese.
The sales clerk approached us with a big smile. She asked if I wanted to buy any Sichuan peppercorns that day.
“No,” I replied in Chinese and then turned to my friend, “I’d like to buy some Sichuan peppercorns.”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly losing all enthusiasm. “Then you’ll have to go next door.”
Sichuan peppercorns are a very popular commodity in China, but they’re illegal for sale in the far western province of Sichuan because the government fears they will encourage separatist tendencies among ethnic Tibetans who live there. But like other things that are banned in one part of China but allowed somewhere else—books, pornography, firearms—you can always find them if you look hard enough. And it’s not just rural Tibetans who want access to the spice; Sichuanese people themselves can’t get enough of it either. They love it so much that they’ve been known to make special trips across the country
Mei’s Rice Flower is one of the more popular Szechuan restaurants in New York City. It has a reputation for authentic food, with lots of spicy and numbing flavors, which is what I’m after.
The restaurant itself is small, with red walls and a bar right next to the entrance. There are only a few tables in the main dining area, but if you’re willing to sit near the kitchen, you can get a much larger table. The service was very friendly and they were quick to bring water and tea without being asked.
The menu itself is very concise- there were only 4 appetizers, 8 entrees, 3 side dishes (rice and noodles), and 6 soups. That alone should be enough to tell you that this isn’t your average Chinese restaurant.
Within those categories the real difference lies in whether or not you want it spicy or not. If you do want it spicy, again there are different levels of spiciness available for each dish: 1 for mild, 2 for medium, 3 for “make your nose run”. You can also order dishes with extra hot peppers or numbing peppercorns added (at an extra cost).
I ordered the minced chicken with green pepper sauce (mmm numbing peppercorn