Szechuan Peppercorns

I learned something today. I love kung pao chicken. I always avoided eating the little red chilies in it thinking they would be too hot for me. Yet I like the numbing sensation. So today I learned it’s two different foods. I was researching make a spicy sauce for some bland chicken I cooked last night and that’s when I read about the difference between the Szechuan peppercorns and the dried red chilies. They said the peppercorns are not hot but they do have the mouth numbing quality. A friend said he usually grinds them and uses them in any dish he’d like to give more heat and a slightly floral flavor. They aren’t hot as much as they have a somewhat punchy and mildly fruity flavor and they give that mouth numbing effect.

The numbing sensation comes from Szechuan peppercorns and the dried red chili peppers are what give the heat. Szechuan peppercorns are first lightly toasted and then can be used whole or ground into powder (then it’s called Szechuan pepper.) The spice is one of the 5 ingredients that comprise five-spice powder. The others are star anise, fennel, clove, and cinnamon, and it’s used in many savory Szechuan dishes.

Chefs believe the numbing effect reduces the chile pepper’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the chile’s intense, fruity flavor. The Szechuan peppercorn by itself does not have more spicy hotness than black peppercorns, but the mouth tingle acts to enhance tastes.

THE SCIENCE: Szechuan peppercorns contain the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. Like capsaicin in chili peppers, it interacts with nerve cell receptors in your lips and mouth. (Researchers pinpointed the Meissner receptors.) It excites the touch sensors and the confusing sensation feels like numbness. The chemical triggers the receptors, causing them to fire a message to your brain that the area is being touched. With enough stimulation, it feels like the area has gone numb.

You don’t put a whole Sichuan peppercorn in your mouth and bite down. So if you see a whole Sichuan peppercorn in a dish, don’t eat it. The more appealing way to eat it is ground into tiny chunks or powder.

Article: What Is Szechuan Peppercorn? Uses, Benefits, Recipes

Video: What is the Szechuan Peppercorn?

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