The province of Szechuan, China, is widely regarded for its culinary delights. I applaud the Szechuan people’s commitment to food that feels suicidally hot. On the molecular level, the so-called Szechuan pepper is behind those dishes. The closest we get to this kind of food in Toronto is through a couple of restaurants in Chinatown that are notorious for their spicy Szechuan cuisine. Here is a shot of my lab at a group outing last week. I am also showing you alpha-hydroxy sanshool, the culprit present in those infamous Szechuan peppercorns. These peppercorns look weird, nothing like your typical pepper. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to join us in this journey (Jeff was running a TLC, whereas Serge probably wasn’t brave enough…).
Now I understand why my tongue is numb every time I have Szechuan food. It is because alpha-hydroxy sanshool excites my neurons by inhibiting several (yes, not just one!) anesthetic-sensitive potassium ion channels. Here is a Nature Neuroscience paper that goes into the “unique and complex psychophysical sensations associated with the Szechuan pepper experience”.