Chinese Spices Hijack Your Taste Buds

The toothache tree of North America, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis
The toothache tree of North America, Zanthoxylum clava-herculis amyb/Flickr

The Gist has been on a field trip in New York City this week, taking culinary detours into Italy, Korea, Lebanon, Ireland and the Sichuan province of China.

The Grand Sichuan International in Chinatown is a living-room-sized restaurant with an invisible kitchen, a dozen tables, and a soft-drink cooler wedged against one wall. Grand or not, it's where I learned the meaning of ma la, the Chinese name for a soup made of dried chilies and Sichuan pepper. It arrived as a steaming tureen, set before us on a portable gas burner and filled with a bright-red bubbling liquid. Crispy dried chilies - perhaps 40 of them - bobbed in the waves like radioactive minnows, and we eventually fished them out to keep the soup from getting any hotter.

But the real draw were the small woody flecks of Sichuan pepper floating in the broth. At first, these gave the soup a random and alarming crunchiness. But moments later the taste developed into a citrusy buzzing and tingling over my mouth and tongue. As it went on, the feeling almost perfectly balanced the heat from the chilies, mellowing it and sweetening it in waves that sloshed across my mouth. That's ma la: "numbing hot."

The nearest equivalent is the tingling you get from eating orange or lemon zest (or perhaps, the weird taste/sense as your tongue comes back to life at the dentist's). But for me, the sensation brought back precisely a visit to a south Georgia barrier island some 15 years ago. I had searched the back dunes for a tree in the genus Zanthoxylum. Sometimes called "toothache tree," the leaves are supposed to make your mouth go numb. When I found it, it was a short, stout tree covered with immense thorns and sporting leathery dark-green leaves. At the time I was disappointed that my mouth didn't go completely numb, but the sensation was identical to the lemony fizz of my Sichuan hot pot.

Back home, a little reading turned up why. Sichuan peppercorns (or huajiao) are the dried seed husks of a few Asian species of Zanthoxylum (one of many neat botanical holdovers from the days before the Atlantic Ocean stood between Eurasia and North America).

Fortunately for us, ma la and Sichuan pepper have not escaped the notice of chemists, and a 1999 paper in Brain Research suggests why the spice can make our tongues feel so many things at once. The lemony taste and tingling sensations come from a half-dozen volatile oils, the most peculiar being something called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. When scientists tested this compound (on rats), they found it activated several different classes of neurons, including touch-sensitive, cool-sensitive, and cold-sensitive receptors.

Sichuan pepper is in the citrus family and is unrelated to white, black, or red peppers. Importing the spice to the U.S. only became legal in 2005 after fears eased about its potential for transporting a citrus disease. So, if I arm myself with some Zanthoxylum berries and the right cookbook, might I be able to recreate my hot pot - and make my taste buds do back flips again? After my nose stops running, I'm going to try.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.