Szechuan pepper provides the warmth and spice in Explorer’s Gin. It originated from China and has been used in culinary foods since the 14th century.
Most people will remember their first encounter with this little peppercorn. You might have been happily tucking into your savoury, spicy dish when suddenly you’re not sure you taste anything anymore. You get a tingling sensation on your lips, which is followed by a numbness of your tongue. A citrus flavour on the tongue switches suddenly to eucalyptus and mint. Did I mention it’s electric? The smell is very fragrant, intoxicating and lemony. Albeit small, it packs a mighty punch, although it’s not as hot as black or white pepper.
Facts about Szechuan Peppercorns:
Scientific Name: Zanthoxylum (a member of the citrus family)
Common name: Sichuan pepper, Chinese Coriander, Mala or Timor berry
Origin: China – Szechuan Province
Height: Plants can grow up to 4m high and have ash like leaves. They produce small yellow flowers in the early summer.
The Szechuan peppercorn originates from Northern China. Sichuan is notoriously wet in winter, and the summers are very hot. To counteract the humid weather, the Sichuanese people have historically spiked their diet with warming foods like garlic, ginger and Szechuan pepper, making it an essential part of the regional cuisine.
It may also surprise you to learn that Szechuan peppercorn isn't really a pepper at all. It doesn't come from Piper nigrum as does black pepper (native to India). In fact, the peppers are the dried red-brown berries of the prickly ash tree.
The Science behind the tingly sensation:
So what is behind this strange phenomenon, scientifically known as paraesthesia? Scientists believe that it has something to do with a molecule called hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which is present in the pepper corns. This molecule interacts with our cell receptors differently than capsaicin, which is the active ingredient that causes chillies to produce a burning sensation in our mouths.
While capsaicin triggers the same receptors that are activated when we’re burned by excessive heat, the active chemical in Sichuan peppercorns excites tactile sensors in our lips and mouths—in other words, you feel the taste of the pepper as though your lips are being physically touched by something vibrating quickly, causing that numbness associated with eating Sichuan peppercorn.
The active ingredient, sanshool, causes a vibration on the lips measured at 50 hertz, the same frequency as the power grid in most parts of the world, according to a 2013 study at University College London.
Peppers were always going to be part of the botanical bill and so I started to research which types would work with the other botanicals in my recipe. A Chinese writer called H Wang stated, “In Sichuan, it has been written that eating spicy food has come to be regarded as an indication of such personal characteristics as courage, valour and endurance, all essential qualities of the adventurous spirit.” This sealed the deal!
Working with the fresh, zesty and aromatic character of Szechuan was tricky at first. Too much and its taste would dominate the distillate; too little and you wouldn’t taste anything amongst the other botanicals. After a lot of experimenting I have finally found the right balance. I hope that, when sipping your Explorer’s gin, you can taste its character showing through on your nose and on your palate, and that you get the ‘essential qualities of the adventurous spirit’!