What is it about eating Szechuan peppers that causes the lasting tingling or numbness in your mouth and lips after the burn has subsided? Sure, Capsaicin produces the burning sensation that delights hot sauce connoisseurs but there's another process at play when it comes to Szechuan peppers.
New research shows that a molecule in the Szechuan pepper, Hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, excites a certain type of tactile sensor in our skin in a way that feels like the sensors have been vibrated very quickly. University College London researchers explored this strange phenomena by brushing volunteers' lips with both ground Szechuan peppers and later a vibrating metal tool to match the level of numbness caused by the pepper. By identifying the frequency of the numbing sensation, the scientists determined that the high-sensitivity Meissner receptors in the skin were the ones fired up by the Szechuan peppers.
"Why Szechuan Peppers Make Your Lips Go Numb" (Smithsonian)
Volcano Dust is a brand of powdered bhut jolokia chili peppers. Also known as ghost chills, bhut jolokias are mind-bendingly hot. For example, an average jalapeño pepper measures about 5,000 on the Scoville heat scale; a bhut jolokia measures 1,000,000 Scovilles.
The manufacturer of Volcano Dust sent me a box of samples, and I carefully tried them out. They are certainly the hottest powdered chili peppers I've ever tasted, but I like them. A slight dusting of the Hot Italian Blend on my easy-over eggs or chicken soup turns them into an exciting culinary experience. Here's to blown-out capsaicin receptors!
(I gave Cory a jar of the pure powdered bhut jolokia when he came to visit a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully he'll share his thoughts on it.)