The tingling spice is key in cuisines from Nepal to China, writes Arva Ahmed
The citrusy heat of sichuan pepper not only tingles our food culturalist Arva Ahmed’s tastebuds but sends her on a hunt for her own stash.
Five years have flown by since the time I sat racking my brains over Nepalese dumplings on floor -1 of a dingy old building in Bur Dubai. An unfamiliar ingredient whispered its flavour from within the translucent skin of the chicken momos: Lemony, flowery and cooling. I summoned Alam, the Bangladeshi server-cum-receptionist at the now-closed Kathmandu Highland Restaurant. He was also the navigator who guided me through the alleys of Meena Bazaar to the restaurant, a story that’s best left for another time. Alam promptly obeyed, unwittingly walking straight into my ingredient interrogation session. It was not cumin, nor was it coriander. Alam rotated through his mental masala ‘dabba,’ offering up the name of one spice at a time in the hopes that he could be released from questioning. But nothing he mentioned fit the bill. Finally, as a last desperate measure, he blurted: ‘Timur?’ Bingo.
Until that first time when Alam ran back to the kitchen to bring me a saucer of timur, I had never consciously consumed this spice. The saucer was crowded with split and seeded peppercorns, and Alam offered it up to me as ransom for his release. Still unsatisfied, I took a hefty pinch off the saucer and placed it on my tongue, chewing it ponderously. It was the perfect flavour match: Intensely citrus, floral and
Timur is a child of the citrusy genus Zanthoxylum, a cousin of the wellknown Sichuan pepper as well as the Japanese prickly ash. Unlike black peppercorns, which are made from the whole dried fruit of the pepper vine, this family of spices is made from the dried rind of the seeded fruit. Their characteristic lemony flavour is a product of two aromatic compounds in the rind: Citronellal and citronellol. Another departure from black pepper is the presence of compounds called sanshools, which produced the disconcerting tongue-numbing sensation I experienced when Alam offered me the saucer.
My book of food science by Harold McGee ordains that sanshools ‘appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a general neurological confusion’.
The short story is that this family of spices produces an effect similar to when you strum your finger across a row of taut strings. The strings tingle and vibrate, until they harmoniously emit a singular buzzing hum, akin to the cool numbing feeling the dried rinds produce on the tip of your tongue – odd, disconcerting and magical at the same time.
Now the strange thing is that I have definitely eaten Sichuan chicken at Chinese restaurants growing up in Dubai. But most of the Chinese fare we consumed during the ’80s was really Indian-Chinese; I doubt whether the Sichuan chicken we ate growing up ever had Sichuan pepper at all, but it appeased the Indian appetite (even if appalling the Chinese).
While the Nepalese timur is evasive to find in the local market – my Nepalese hairdresser once got a jar for me – it is easier to encounter Sichuan peppercorns. The China Cluster in International City is the most obvious place to start. My mother-in-law and I recently tried reverse-engineering the spices in the kung pao chicken and meat stew at Lan Zhou Yi Jia, a restaurant that serves dishes from the Muslim Xianjing province of China. The distinctly cool, floral flavour circling in the background of both dishes gave the Sichuan pepper away.
My favourite Chinese hot pot restaurant tosses them into their spicy broth to produce the famous flavour combination of Chongqing in China: ‘ Ma la’ or numbing and spicy. My hot pot server sent me on a wild goose chase for Sichuan pepper in the alleys of Baniyas in Deira.
I stumbled across many things before finally finding the intended Chinese grocery store. The lady at the cashier looked up from her meditative task of stirring cracked eggs through a murky tea broth: Would she know where I could find a packet of these magically numbing peppercorns? She smiled back at me, not understanding a word of my impeccable Queen’s English. I whipped out my phone, typed frantically and turned the bright screen towards her. Seconds later, I exchanged a Dh5 note for an airtight pack of ‘Chinese prickly ash’. Thank goodness for Google Translate. While I did use my hairdresser’s jar of timur in a creamy tomato and sesame dipping sauce, I have yet to apply my Chinese prickly ash in a worthy culinary manner. To date, I have used
I took a hefty pinch off the saucer and placed it on my tongue, chewing it ponderously. A minute later, I looked up alarmed – my mouth started salivating in overdrive mode and my tongue had gone numb
it more as a quiz for unsuspecting guests on my food tours or at dinner parties, wickedly waiting until their tongues go numb before I unveil the science behind this ordinary-seeming pepper. With the farmer’s market now on in Business Bay, I might be inspired to use it in less sinister ways with the flavorful organic produce available. Stir-fried eggplant and peppers in Sichuan pepper and sesame sauce, anyone?
ABOVE Sanshool- fuelled Sichuan pepper is often used in dishes such as kung pao chicken
unlike anything I had tasted from a peppermill. A minute later, I looked up at Alam alarmed – my mouth started salivating in overdrive mode and my tongue had gone numb.