There's a taste sensation I've been chasing lately that borders on addiction. It's a rolling numbness, like lightning bottled up and served as a condiment. A wavelength of electric feel the likes MGMT would be proud of. It's a tingling vibration that embraces my entire mouth in a buzz, like I've just gargled a raincloud. But in a good way. And it's all thanks to the Sichuan peppercorn.
For those not familiar, the Sichuan peppercorn is commonly used in Chinese food, more specifically, in Sichuan cuisine. Unlike most peppers, Sichuan peppercorn's characteristics aren't hot or pungent, rather they illicit a spice sensation that's akin to the carbonation in soda yet with a tingly, numbing sensation, like touching your tongue to a nine-volt battery. Though I wouldn't recommend actually doing so. And we have the 3% of a molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool within the peppercorns to thank for this dynamic feeling.
To get to the bottom of my obsession with Sichuan spice, I hit up Chef Louis Tikaram, of EP & LP in Hollywood, CA, who recently debuted a secret menu dish that featured actual fresh Sichuan peppercorns. The reason that's significant is because according to him, finding fresh Sichuan peppercorns outside of China is quite rare.
"I went to Kong Thao's farm in Fresno and I walked under this tree and got this crazy kind of waft. I was like what the fuck what is that? It was fresh Sichuan peppercorns and I look up and it’s just this huge tree. I always imagined [they] would be on almost like a vanilla vine, so perfect and delicate and powerful."
Such a eureka moment sparked a fervor in Tikaram to take advantage of this opportunity, ultimately leading to a dish that utilized the concentrated power of fresh Sichuan peppercorns.
"So I took a big bag, rode it back to the restaurant and I started to cook. These fresh berries are so intense. Where the dry ones have been heat treated, dried, and who knows when they’ve been harvested. Could’ve been years ago. Knowing how powerfully concentrated the peppercorns are fresh, I had to develop a dish where I could get that intensity but balance it so it has kind of that intoxicating aroma and you can still understand where the dish is coming from."
The result is a beautifully fried fish cooked in vegetable oil that the fresh peppercorns were heated in quickly, which is a process that Tikaram referred to as "blooming." What this does is flavor the oil with the peppercorns' electric essence almost instantly, which he then uses to coat the fried fish.
Watching Chef Louis orchestrate his mastery of this dish had me salivating more than a pack of Pavlov's hounds. When he slid the finished plate to me I almost snatched it halfway, the longing for the cosmic Sichuan spice getting the better of me. First bite and yes, there it was, that familiar floral tinge that unfurled itself slowly across my tongue like silken electricity, coating my palate in delicious voltage. And it's this very nature of spicy that has plenty other foodies flocking to Sichuan-style restaurants these days.
Stopping short of calling this rise of interest in Sichuan cuisine a trend, it is easy to say that the freakishly addictive nature of this otherworldly kind of spiciness is on the cusp of being bigger that what it is confined to. And with chefs like Louis Tikaram coming across rarities like fresh Sichuan peppercorns, soon enough we'll be seeing the fresh jungle green tinge of them in more and more regional style dishes, as opposed to the maroon hue of dried ones.
What that hopefully means is more taser-good tastes coming to fiends of the Sichuan spice, as the love for this cuisine is literally the buzz these days for adventurous foodies and curious palates alike.