The tin­gling spice is key in cuisines from Nepal to China, writes Arva Ahmed

Friday - - Contents - Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs. Hear her pod­cast, The Fry­ing Pan Di­aries, on fry­ing panad­ven­

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.

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