I'd come to the Observer's weekly staff meeting with a small plastic bag of Sichuan peppercorns and passed them around the table. The spice isn't a pepper, but husks of a tiny fruit grown and consumed throughout Asia. When combined with real chiles and oil, the small pods form the backbone of a subset of Sichuan cooking called Mala.
I was first introduced to the spice by Eric Zeibold, a former chef at the French Laundry, who had instructed that I chew on the pod raw, to get to know its flavor and better learn how it affected dishes. The event kicked off a love for the bold spicy flavors of Sichuan cooking. When I found the peppercorns at a grocery here in Dallas, I decided to bring them to work.
"It's a flavor explosion."
The spice on its own starts with a lemony flavor that strangely resembles Fruit Loops, but as it sits in your mouth, those flavors blossom into a mouth-numbing experience.
"This tastes like bathroom cleaner smells."
Salivary glands kick into overdrive when you chew on the husks, which resolve in as much a sensation as a flavor. Harold McGee wrote a thorough (as always) description of the sensation, saying that the peppercorns ...
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produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.
Or, as Wilonsky put it: "The end of it's kind of disturbing."
This may sound anything but appetizing, but when combined with heat, oil, and other aromatics, Sichuan peppercorns make for an addictive flavor profile, at once spicy and electric.
Despite an extended lunch tour in Richardson, I still haven't found dan dan noodles and mala tofu with sufficient zing. Some day soon, I hope.