What Causes the Tingling Numbing Sensation in Sichuan Pepper?

What Causes the Tingling Numbing Sensation in Sichuan Pepper?

19 April 2022LOIS GOH

Let’s be honest. It’s tricky to put a finger on how Sichuan pepper actually tastes since it’s not actually a spiciness caused by heat but is instead a taste sensation that leaves you with a unique tingling numbing on your tongue.

But what causes the tingly numbing? That sensation is caused by a molecule called hydroxy-α-sanshool. While humans have nerve endings all over our skin, this aromatic molecule can only reach those nerve receptors where the skin is very thin, such as on the mouth and lips. This is why we experience a stimulating pleasant sensation when tasting Sichuan Pepper.


I’ll be the first to admit that when I first tried Sichuan pepper, I felt like I was having an allergic reaction because my tongue was numb and the tingling sensation was all consuming but this slowly dissipated with time and my tongue receptors were itching to taste more. So imagine my surprise when I learnt that there were other similar numbing ingredients around the world too.


Thailand: Makhwaen มะแขว่น (Zanthoxylum limonella)
This Northern Thai ingredient has a fruitier and less intense mouth-numbing effect than Sichuan Pepper. Combined with spicy chilli peppers, “Makhwaen is used to bring that tingly heat to dishes like Laap Meuang, a northern Thai meat salad. It is toasted and pounded with other ingredients to make Naam Phrik Laap (northern Thai Laap seasoning paste).”

Nepal: Timur टिमुर (Zanthoxylum alatum)
Because these peppers are difficult to find, we’re excited that you’ll be able to try them out for yourself from our friends at Burlap and Barrel.

Japan: Sansho 山椒 (Zanthoxylum piperitum)
Mostly found in powder form, you can commonly see it veins sprinkled atop an unagi don

Brazil: Jambú
Jambú, also known as the “toothache plant” is often used in remedies for tooth pain because it contains an anesthetic property that comes from the compound spilanthol. When ingested, Jambú numbs the mouth, stimulates salivation, and has a cooling effect.


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