Why Does This Spice Make My Mouth Go Numb? An Explanation Of The Legendary Sichuan Peppercorn.
Don’t be alarmed, that’s just the special ability of the Sichuan Peppercorn! It’s also sometimes known as prickly ash pepper, nepal pepper, and some other creative translations. In Chinese, it’s known as 花椒, pronounced huā jiāo, or literally “flower pepper”.
This unique seasoning creates a one of a kind sensation and taste, creating a tingly, numbing sensation that’s a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. The sensation is known as paresthesia, and the more of it you eat, the more numb your mouth gets, and the more tingles and fun to be had!
The compound in Sichuan Peppercorn that creates this sensation is called hydroxy-α-sanshool, which, strangely enough, bears the Japanese style name sanshō, or mountain pepper.
Science is still not sure exactly how it works, which is still a matter of some debate. Some people say it works in similar ways to capsaicin, the compound that creates the spicy sensation in chili peppers, but others claim it’s potassium channels. The Smithsonian Magazine even references a study where the peppercorn is thought to activate vibration receptors, producing a numbing sensation the same as getting your lips vibrated at 50 hertz!
For our purposes though, it doesn’t really matter too much, as it’s just delicious. One of the reasons why it’s so popular is the synergy it has with capsaicin, and why it’s often paired with hot peppers in Sichuan cuisine. This flavor is known as 麻辣, pronounced má là, and is literally the conjunction of the words “numb” and “spicy”! This synergistic effect boosts spicy flavors to the next level, creating new levels of aromatic flavor while providing an entirely new dimension to the food through the numbing paresthesia effect.
Spicy foods are popular because they cause floods of endorphins in the brain in response to the painful spicy sensation, and the spicier you can handle, the stronger that feeling becomes. Experiences with superhot peppers like Ghost Peppers, Carolina Reapers, and Trinidad Scorpions can often make people super giddy and euphoric and have boundless amounts of energy as they run around with their mouths on fire!
But, it’s pretty hard to get to that spicy euphoria if the pain of spice is just too much to handle. That’s another reason the Sichuan Peppercorn’s numbing sensation is so popular with spicy food-- It lets you eat spicier foods than you’d normally be able to handle, because, well, it dulls the pain! This creates a positive feedback loop of eating more of the má là food because it’s tasty, spicy, and causing euphoria, then the numbing wearing off and it getting more spicy, then eating more to get the flavor and numbing sensation back, then repeating the process all over again!
So if you feel some strange numbness on your tongue after trying out Sichuan cuisine or our upcoming Sichuan Chili Crisp ramen, just know that it’s part of the awesome experience: it’s synergizing with the spicy flavor to boost aromatic flavors and making everything tastier, and providing just enough numbing paresthesia to eat spicier food than you’d normally be able to eat! It’s packed into Vite Ramen’s Sichuan Chili Crisp flavor to provide the incredible sensation that only Sichuan peppercorn can provide. It’s a seriously unique flavor and effect that has to be tasted to be believed!
Images courtesy of Fly By Jing