When you bite into a Sichuan peppercorn, there’s a tingly sensation, a buzz, paired with a hint of acidity. The entire experience culminates in your mouth with numbness. What exactly is happening here?
The acidity can be explained through taxonomy. Sichuan peppercorns come from the genus Zanthoxylum, or as they’re more commonly known, prickly ash trees. Native to subtropical areas like Southern China, these trees are actually more closely related to citrus than the plants that produce black peppers or chili peppers, hence that slight sourness. The tingly sensation, however, is another matter entirely.
Though the outcome is different, spicy and tingly operate in very similar ways. Unlike sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or umami, spicy isn’t a taste. Spicy foods contain a compound called capsaicin, which binds to VR1 receptors in the mouth, fooling our brains into thinking that spicy food is “hot.” These thermal receptors are usually responsible for telling you if a food is going to burn your mouth. They were not designed to “taste” spice, yet here we are. You’re tearing up with a runny nose, and your mouth is throbbing.
Sichuan peppercorns operate in a similar way. A compound found in Sichuan peppercorns called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, like capsaicin, binds to receptors in your tongue, convincing your brain of a “tingly” sensation.
Though it remains unclear exactly how sanshool creates this effect or exactly which receptors it binds to, it is clear that the compound interacts with somatosensory neurons, which detect changes to the surface of your skin. Essentially, sanschool fools our brain into thinking something is physically touching our tongue and making it vibrate.
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