Numbing Spice: Am I Doing It Wrong?

five-spice-powderA few weeks ago I was talking with my brother and his fiance about their recent trip to Japan. I’m always curious about the food people eat when they travel, and they said they had tried some dishes involving sichuan, the numbing spice.

I’d never heard of the spice even though I’ve definitely eaten food with it (also in Japan). The spice makes your mouth feel abuzz, kind of like Novocain, but in a pleasurable kind of way. Apparently the spice can even change how your tongue perceives taste.

I didn’t know it was a spice, though–I just thought it was some inherent quality about the food. So when I learned that a spice was involved, I turned to the internet and bought it. I wanted to experience it again.

That’s where my sichuan story peters out, unfortunately. I’ve used the spice several times–both before and after cooking various dishes–and it has yet to numb my mouth at all. Where is the numbness?!

Have you ever eaten food with the numbing spice? Or, even better, have you cooked using the spice? If so, what am I doing wrong?

13 thoughts on “Numbing Spice: Am I Doing It Wrong?”

  1. I love Sichuan cuisines. A few years ago, I worked abroad in Taiwan for several years and I would have Sichuan food at least twice a week. The numbing spice really needs to be combined with hot chilli to get the effect (typically a combination of fresh chilli and chilli oil). I’ve never cooked with the spice before so I’m not sure how much spice is meant to be used. A very popular style of food is the “Mala Hotpot” (https://www.google.com.au/search?q=%E9%BA%BB%E8%BE%A3%E7%81%AB%E9%8D%8B&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi2quHE_qjNAhVIJ5QKHYldA50Q_AUICCgB&biw=1389&bih=770) This uses the numbing spice to create a soup based dish, sort of similar to Shabu Shabu.

    Reply
    • Shabu shabu…how I miss thee. 🙂

      That’s great to know! I didn’t know that about the need to combine it with hot chilli to get the effect. I’ll try to get some chilli oil.

      Reply
  2. First time learning of this spice but during my trip to Japan my hotel had the most amazing breakfast bar. I was eating a ton of sweetest persimmons. I had never tried them back home but did so upon my return. If you’ve ever read up on persimmon types, astrigent varieties can numb your mouth really bad. I totally freaked out my stepsons with an unripe one.

    Reply
    • Aaron and Jasmin: Well, now I’m wondering if the thing I’m looking for is actually sichuan. The things I ate in Japan weren’t spicy or hot, so maybe they were astrigent persimmons?

      Reply
      • Persimmons? That’s a fruit… with a numbing effect. Interesting. *Stroking invisible beard* Never heard of that before.

        Jamey, what did you eat there that’s numbing but it’s not spicy or hot? I’m very curious.

        Reply
        • It’s been a while–I can’t exactly remember. It was an assorted tray of lots of different types of foods, most of which I think were cold. Definitely not spicy.

          Reply
  3. Just thinking about this with my chemistry background in mind. It would imagine that a specific preparation and temperature would be require to release the proper chemicals that have the said effects. I don’t know how you were preparing them, but it makes total sense that only certain dishes (based on their preparation) would bring out the true effects of the spice. In chemistry lab, the proper procedure and temperature for was everything.

    Reply
    • John: Yeah, I was curious about that–that’s why I tried cooking with the spice and applying the spice afterwards. But apparently more experimentation is needed!

      Reply
  4. You should check out Miracle Berry, which is a fruit that changes the perception of sour for as long as half an hour. Things like vinegar and lemon are dramatically softened.

    My weirdest experience was when I thought I had a bad tooth once. I had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth that lasted about two weeks. Once it’s had cleared I didn’t think too much about it until I mentioned it to a colleague who said it sounded like pine mouth. I looked this up and I’m pretty sure that’s what I had. You see my wife makes a lovely butternut squash and pine nut lasagne every so often. Apparently whilst pine nuts were expensive a while back, unscrupulous sellers were cutting them with a similar looking nut. This nut has the ability to make food taste metallic for up to a month!

    I’m sure they could sell those pine nut imposters as a diet aid, as I didn’t want to eat a thing whilst I had pine mouth.

    Reply
    • Wow, I’ve never heard of that metallic nut, and it’s amazing it can have such long-lasting effects. I need to check out Miracle Berry.

      Reply
  5. When I cooked with it previously, it involved frying the ungrounded pepper corns in hot oil. I didn’t buy the ingredients, so I’m not sure how to reproduce, but if you see instructions that involve steps like that, you’re on the right track.

    Reply
    • Thanks Andrew! I was worried that buying the ground version might diffuse the numbing effect, and it sounds like that’s the case here.

      Reply

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