Perhaps the four most frightening words we’ve ever heard spoken are, “No, no. Not spicy.” We were sitting in Chili Fagara, a small Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong just a few blocks away from the Cat Street market. We’d just polished off the last of an appetizer called Dumplings in Chili Sauce which was essentially pork-filled ravioli floating in a thick stew of bubbling red chili oil. It was the single spiciest food either of us had ever tasted. We were on fire. We were visibly soaked in sweat. No quantity of beer seemed able to quench the burn. We grew up in Colorado. We pride ourselves on being able to handle spice. If this restaurant considered this dish “not spicy,” we were in serious trouble.
The waitress must have seen panic on our faces. She smile softly and added, “Not spicy, numbing.” And she was absolutely correct. It took a moment to realize it, but our mouths weren’t on fire at all. The sensation we were feeling was more akin to having your foot fall asleep or licking a nine-volt battery. For the first time in our lives, we were experiencing numbness. It turns out that there’s a sixth taste about which we we’d never heard.
In 1908, Japanese Doctor Kikunae Ikeda discovered what is, over 100 years later, now universally acknowledged to be the fifth flavor, umami. For those who have yet to visit an Umami Burger—an LA institution that has recently come to SF—umami is less of a taste than it is a base note. Without imparting any specific flavor, it acts the same way that Louie Armstrong’s voice filled in an orchestra. Umami is the crisp, clear blacks in your new plasma television. It replaces your old cotton sheets with slick red satin and, in the case of Vietnamese food, hangs mirrors on the ceiling.
Before the discovery of umami, the food scientists acknowledged only bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Umami took us from four tastes to five. Our old friend spicy is not considered a taste. Nor is fatty, which makes little sense to anyone who has ever tried to choke down a Jack In The Box Taco. Honestly, what is and is not a basic taste seems to us a bit arbitrary. Perhaps other tastes will be added over time, but for now we sit with five. On the bright side, the addition of umami has freed us to discuss ad nauseum a new taste that has no inherent taste. Umami is the voicebox of food. Run your grandmother singing Ukrainian folk songs through modern voicebox effects and she’s indistinguishable from Lady Gaga. Similarly, add umami to your Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and you have a Joel Rubichon appetizer commanding caviar prices.
It’s the vagaries of umami that make numbing the perfect candidate to be widely accepted as taste number six. If you’ve never experienced numbing, you should know that numbing is entirely unlike the feeling you experience in a dentist’s chair under the influence of Novocain. While it is true that numbing tingles like the best of pain medication, it in no way deadens the palate. If anything, numbing combines tingling, numbing sensations with heightened sensitivity to other tastes. Our beef, crab and Sichuan green beans were mind-blowingly flavorful. Our numb palates lifted the spice, vinegar and garlic of these dishes in way that must be experienced to be understood. Just as umami fills the palate, numbing supercharges it.
The source of our numbing sensation was a spice called Sichuan peppercorn. The name is misleading. The spice is not a member of the pepper family. Sichuan peppercorn is a citrus. If you haven’t heard of it, blame the USDA. Until 2005, it was illegal to bring Sichuan peppercorn into the US. Not because of any narcotic effects, but rather because the US government feared that the fruit might inadvertently transfer an Asian citrus disease to American orange and lemon trees. The solution, it turns out, is a simple as heating the peppercorns to 170-degrees to kill any potential hitchhikers. The spice is now legal, but it’s rare because American Chinese food preferences evolved without the numbing element. No one seems to be in a rush to add it back in. This leaves an opening for us to claim credit for its “discovery.”
For the record, there is no shortage of shops selling Sichuan peppercorns online. There are also countless recipes, including recipes for numbing desserts. Being that we live a Drink Your Carbs lifestyle, we plan to skip the desserts. But we will be experimenting with our newly discovered, sixth taste. As we come up with new, DYC-compliant tingling masterpieces we will post them. If you come up with any, please do the same in the comments below.
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