Like a certain other plant product that affects taste perception, Sichuan peppercorns used to be contraband. Sichuan peppercorn is the dried fruit of a tree in the citrus family, and the USDA was concerned that it might harbor citrus canker, a crop-decimating bacterium that Florida and California farmers have nightmares about. Imports were illegal until 2005.
The ban didn’t make Sichuan peppercorn impossible to find in the U.S., of course. Friends would slip each other plastic baggies of the stuff, usually with a conspiratorial giggle. Can you believe this is illegal? It’s just a plant.
Quality was inconsistent at best. Sometimes you’d get the effect you were after — the tingly, numbing sensation that is an especially pleasing complement to hot peppers — and sometimes just a chemical taste and no buzz at all. The best I ever had, back then, was in 2001 at the now defunct Hell’s Kitchen location of Grand Sichuan International. My friends and I foraged through the plate of gui zhou spicy chicken and each of us pushed peppercorns on the others. Go on, just chew one more. It probably won’t fuck up your mouth permanently.
Then the feds legalized it, with the stipulation that the peppercorns had to be heat-sterilized to kill any parasites before customs would wave them in. It’s unclear how often this heat treatment is actually happening, but in any case, now it’s easier to find great shit with off-the-charts potency. (Still talking about Sichuan peppercorn here. I think.) Without the thrill of the illicit, however, no one talks about it anymore.
That’s unfortunate, because Sichuan peppercorn figures in some of the world’s — and New York’s — most delicious dishes. Kung pao pastrami at Mission Chinese Food. Spicy diced rabbit at Café China. Spicy and tingly beef hand-ripped noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods.
“Spicy and tingly” is where Sichuan peppercorn is most at home. The combination is known as ma la in Mandarin Chinese. The la is chile heat, of which Sichuan peppercorn has none, despite often being described as “spicy.” Instead, Sichuan pepper’s ma “gives you a tingly, numbing sensation that envelops your lips and tongue it’s as if your lips are vibrating,” says Chloe Zhao of Málà Project, a Sichuanese dry pot restaurant in the East Village. Dry pot is an inauspicious name for a great dish: Each diner chooses their own mix of protein and vegetables, and the cook stir-fries it all up and seasons it with lashes of chile paste and a spice oil infused with Sichuan peppercorn (plus 23 other spices).
Sichuan peppercorn, and its close relatives from elsewhere in Asia, aren’t always paired with chile. In Japan, for example, eel is often seasoned with powdered sanshō ?, a green variety of Sichuan peppercorn, which gives the saucy, fatty fish just a bit of camphor funk. The peppercorns are a common ingredient in five-spice powder and in Tibetan momo. In Korea they’re called chopi and often show up in soups.
And, of course, anything aromatic will soon attract the attention of bartenders. At Ramona, a bar in Greenpoint, Scott Schneider makes the Golden Fang: tequila, cucumber tea, Sichuan peppercorn, honey, pink salt, and grapefruit. “I wanted to create an L.A.-meets-China cocktail,” says Schneider. “When it was first put on the menu, I had so much infused that some customers thought they were having an allergic reaction because their mouths got so numb.” In subsequent batches, he cut back.
Sichuan peppercorn is one of those pleasures that’s hard to describe without making it sound like an ordeal or an exercise in “Can you eat the ghost pepper?” machismo. “You can easily chomp down on one and end up with a numb mouth,” says Taylor Holliday, who blogs about Sichuanese home cooking at the Mala Project (themalaproject.com, unrelated to the dry pot restaurant). “To many of us, this is a good thing.”
Well, let’s see. I just put a single Sichuan peppercorn into my mouth and chewed it lightly. At first, it feels like nothing’s happening. Maybe this one is a dud. OK, the roof of my mouth is going numb. Now a prickly sensation is spreading through my lower lip and tongue, buzzing like an electric toothbrush against my face. This is from one peppercorn.
The electric toothbrush analogy is closer to fact than you might expect. In 2013, Nobuhiro Hagura, a research associate at University College London, rounded up some students and put drops of Sichuan peppercorn extract on their lips. Then the subjects adjusted the knob on a vibrating box until the frequency of the buzzing box in their hand seemed to match the peppercorn-induced tingle on their face. Everyone zeroed in on 50 Hz, which is about one-fifth the frequency of a Sonicare.
Why is this pleasurable? Two reasons, I think. The first is mundane: The flavor and effect of Sichuan peppercorn simply go well with other strong flavors like chile, vinegar, and ginger.
But the main thing that keeps people going back to Sichuan peppercorns is that they alter perception. The active ingredient is called sanshool, after the Japanese name for the plant, and Berkeley cell biologist Diana Bautista discovered in 2008 that it’s one of the only things we ingest that actually acts on touch receptors in the mouth. Like peppermint or chiles, it makes your tongue tell lies, but a whole different kind of lies. And whenever humans discover anything that alters perception, we are, for better or worse, all over it. Fortunately, Sichuan peppercorn is habit-forming but harmless.
Home cooks looking for the buzz still need to shop carefully or end up with a musty bag of detritus. Look for vibrantly colored peppercorns with few twigs or seeds. (Sichuan peppercorns come in red and green; the flavor difference is subtle, but red is more popular and therefore more likely to be fresh.) Local shops with high turnover include New Kam Man on Canal St. and New York Mart on East Broadway.
For the best of the best, however, go online. Holliday sells peppercorns at themalamarket.com, and they’re absurdly fragrant. Even inside a ziplock bag, they will announce their presence every time you open your cupboard. This is not a bad thing either, says Holliday. “The aroma is so addictive I kind of want to make it into a perfume.”
Once you amass a supply of the good stuff, what do you do with it? Start with ma po tofu. It’s easy to make, and because the peppercorns are ground or infused rather than used whole, it’s a gentle introduction to their mouth-hacking properties.
Finally, like other topical anesthetics, Sichuan peppercorns make water taste like you’re drinking out of a rusty paint can. Stick with beer.