A Shocking Ingredient: Sechuan Buttons

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Imagine eating Pop Rocks—no, peppercorn-flavored Pop Rocks—along with the fizziest, tartest lemon soda you've ever tasted. At the same time you are chewing some minty gum, and maybe have had a mild shot of Novocaine, producing not only numbness but a rush of salivation. That would come close to describing the wild—yet strangely pleasant—experience of nibbling a Sechuan button, an edible flower that some chefs and mixologists are using to wow jaded epicures. Others have described eating the exotic botanical as feeling like licking the tip of a battery.

I learned of the Willy Wonka-esque ingredient while researching an earlier post, about the bite-sized melons/cucumbers called Pepquiños grown by the Dutch company Koppert Cress, which has a greenhouse on Long Island. Along with some Pepquiños, Nicolas Mazard, the manager of the stateside branch, sent me a dozen or so Sechuan buttons, with the admonishment to bite off only a small amount, or I "wouldn't like him very much."

As it turned out, I was glad he sent me a handful, because once I tried them I wanted to make everyone I knew take a taste. To a person, they were amazed, and amused. You could almost see the comic book–style sound effects—Zap! Pow! Swoosh!—forming above their heads. To get an idea of typical reactions, watch this video of Washington Post staffers after gnawing the yellow buds.

Koppert Cress gave them the name Sechuan buttons because their effect is reminiscent of that of Szechuan pepper, though that is only one part of the weirdly multi-dimensional experience.

Sechuan buttons have been marketed to chefs in the United States for only a couple of years (they are also sold as Sanshu Buttons by San Diego-based Sungrown Organics), but the flower, Spilanthes acmella, has long been used by cultures in North Africa and Asia to soothe toothaches and protect against parasites.

For chefs, though, its appeal lies in its zingy flavor and tingly sensation. It's been used in sorbets, cocktails and sushi, and even retains its properties when cooked. Ricky Estrellado, of Restaurant Nobu, sprinkles it on dungeness crab in dashi with rhubarb gelee and basil cress.

One question remains: What would happen if Mikey from the Life cereal commercials ate Sechuan buttons with a Coke?

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