The taste of the celebrated Sichuan peppercorn is literally electric. Upon consumption, according to a study by University College London, our lips tingle at a rate of 50 hertz—the common frequency of power grids. The heat of this pepper is a peculiar sensation, yet one ceaselessly resonant with lovers of spice. The Sichuan peppercorn incites a stormy dance in your mouth's nerve endings, furiously firing them back and forth between vibrant numbness and an intense spice. The food scientist Harold McGee describes this as ‘neurological confusion’. It’s the savor equivalent of an Aphex Twin video—a glitchy, surreal delight.
Not actually a pepper, the Sichuan peppercorn is a member of the citrus family, which explains the vigorous notes of lemon embedded in its flavor profile. Technically, it is the dry berry husk of prickly ash trees. With time to mature, the husks unfold like blossoms, inspiring the Chinese name hua jiao, or “flower pepper.”
In southwest China, the Sichuan Province adopted, cultivated, and popularized this particular pepper into the definitive seasoning of its world-famous cuisine. For them, it’s as essential as salt and pepper are for the denizens of, say, New Jersey. In Sichuan cooking, this peppercorn is applied generously onto its signature dishes, like mapo tofu and Chongqing hot pot. Uniquely, the oil-based sauce extracted from the peppercorn is brilliant on everyday American cuisine, think extra-cheese pizza or crispy fried eggs.
Due to some ridiculous bureaucratic quirk (is there any other kind?), the Sichuan pepper was banned in the US for 37 years - and only became legal in 2006. With the brightness of its notes and charged effect on our sense of taste, the Sichuan peppercorn is the neon sign of cuisine, illuminating the far edges of the food stratosphere with sensations that are audacious and energizing—at about 50 hertz.