I'm not talking a seltzer-like zippiness or even a searing chili-like heat. I mean literally tingling because your tongue is at once numb and buzzingly alive.
That is the power of the Sichuan pepper (also called Sichuan peppercorn). But why would you want to (albeit mildly) numb your mouth? Because aside from the basic coolness of a tingling tongue, that sensation also changes the way you taste food seasoned with the pepper, adding a wonderful punchy vibrancy and warmth unlike anything else.
First, the basics. Despite appearances, Sichuan pepper is not a true peppercorn. It is the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree. And chances are you've had it before. Sichuan pepper is a basic component of Chinese five-spice powder.
As its name suggests, the spice has left a serious thumbprint on the cuisine of China's Sichuan province. It also is used in Japan, where it is called sansho. The taste has been compared to lime zest combined with black pepper, cardamom and hot peppers. The tingling is likened to an electric charge.
In Chinese cooking, Sichuan pepper is toasted before being crushed or ground. This mutes the spice's citrus flavours and heightens its woody notes, making for an excellent pairing with meats.
To toast the spice, add it to a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Cool, then grind and use.
For ideas for using Sichuan pepper, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network: http://bit.ly/O7ZXuv
SICHUAN PEPPER MEATBALLS
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Makes 3 dozen meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper
1/2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon dry ground ginger
4 scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound lean ground pork
Sesame oil, for frying
For the dipping sauce:
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons honey
Heat the oven to 400 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray.
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the Sichuan pepper, star anise and ginger for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind until reduced to a fine powder. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add the egg to the seasoning blend, then whisk well. Mix in the scallions and salt, then add the beef and pork. Use your hands to mix well. Form the mixture into tablespoon-size meatballs.
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat about 1 tablespoon of sesame oil until nearly smoking. Working in batches and without crowding the pan, brown the meatballs on all sides, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the meatballs to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining meatballs, adding oil to the skillet as needed.
When all of the meatballs have been browned, place them in the oven and roast for 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the dipping sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, honey and salt.
When the meatballs are finished, serve them with toothpicks and ramekins of the dipping sauce.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 80 calories; 50 calories from fat (63 per cent of total calories); 6 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 5 g protein; 0 g fiber; 125 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.