By Darren Lim
Photo by Jessie Levene
If you live in Chengdu, you might feel like your tongue has become well acquainted with Sichuan peppers (known in Chinese as hua jiao), but the beloved tongue anesthetic has its secrets. For one, the Sichuan "pepper" isn't actually a pepper; it's a berry. Here are some other facts to keep you distracted the next time you're gulping water like a fish after a mouthful of the berries of doom.
1. Apart from "a tingling numbness," there is a scientific name for the sensation that Sichuan peppers inflicts on your tongue: paresthesia. You may have heard of it before -– the sensation is commonly known as "pins and needles." While capsaicin is responsible for the spiciness of chili peppers, the active ingredient in Sichuan peppers is "hydroxyl alpha sanshool," or sanshool for short. How sanshool induces pins and needles on your tongue has remained a matter of debate, but one theory states that sanshool induces sensitivity on nonsensitive nerves, causing a neurological confusion. Simply put, a confused tongue equals a numb tongue.
2. From 1986 to 2005, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned imports of Sichuan peppers because they are capable of carrying the citrus canker disease. While citrus canker is not harmful to humans, it causes lesions on infected plants and spreads rapidly and persistently. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted the ban, provided that the peppers are heated to around 70 degrees Celsius to kill the bacteria before import.
3. Sichuan peppers can do more than warm your abdomen. Is your intestine suffering from roundworm infestations? Spice them out with Sichuan peppers! Its other medicinal properties include pain relief, immunity boost, weight loss, food retention treatment, and toothache suppression. Click here for a full list (in Chinese).
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