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How to Trick Your Own Tongue — And What to Drink While Doing It

Libations

Hannah Frishberg | August 7, 2018
Sample some of nature’s slyly deceptive fruits, herbs, and spices, as well as the cocktails they pair best with.

For those who are tired of the simple thrill of hot sauce, the natural world offers a plethora of herbs, berries, and other foods that allow diners to deceive their taste buds. While most diets are based on predictable ingredients with known tastes, there is an entire group of devious edibles full of unexpected flavor or compositions so strange the human tongue struggles to make sense of them.

Sichuan peppercorns — which are not in fact a pepper but a spice — are one such food. These come from the eponymous Chinese province and are known for bringing heat, fragrance, and numbness. There’s a number of ways to spell “Szechuan” (or “Szechwan”) in English, yet anyone who’s tried it knows that to describe the sensation of consuming one is to grasp for even a single word. They are sourced from the dried husks of Zanthoxylum seeds, and according to The Spruce Eats, consuming one causes a mouth-tingling sensation that often overpowers its citrus tinged, woodsy flavor.

When Lower East Side bartender Sawyer Mitchell set out to concoct a confusing cocktail to trick even the best-trained tongue, she decided to incorporate Sichuan peppercorns into a simple mixture she then combined with tequila and Fernet-Branca. “I was trying to find a balance of citrus alongside the floral pepperiness of peppercorns that would complement the herbal notes of Fernet-Branca,” she says of her creation, the Sichuan Margarita, a light, summery cocktail with a full, two-tone flavor and a serious bite. The tequila and citrus of it hit first, followed by the Fernet-Branca.

Sichuan Margarita

Ingredients:
1 part Fernet-Branca
1 part blanco tequila
juice of one lime (approx. 1 oz.)
dash of Sichuan peppercorn simple syrup

To make the syrup: Simmer ½ cup whole Sichuan peppercorns in 2 cups water for about 15 minutes, or until the water is light orange and fragrant and the peppercorns have lost color.  Strain and discard the peppercorns, then return the liquid to medium heat and add 1 cup of white sugar, stirring until dissolved. This will yield just under two cups of syrup, which will keep for at least a week if refrigerated in an airtight container.

To make the drink: Combine all ingredients in a Boston shaker full of ice; shake vigorously and strain over fresh ice. Garnish with a mint leaf and dust with salt and ground Szechuan peppercorns.

Looking to create a mystery cocktail of your own? Consider including one of the following funky ingredients, all of which are deliciously deceptive in their own ways.

Miracle berry

Perhaps the best-known inducer of shape-shifting tastes is the miracle berry, a West African marvel containing Miraculin, a natural substance that turns sour to sweet. Those who have consumed miracle berries are known to eat entire limes and lemons, reporting that they taste just like candy, and some have even enjoyed shots of vinegar while their tongues were transformed. The miracle berry has given rise to “flavor tripping parties, in which attendees sample an array of foods after eating the berries, experiencing a variety of delightfully mismatched flavors. An excellent cocktail to drink with a miracle berry–enhanced palate, Mitchell suggests, would be “half ouzo, half lemonade, with vodka and no sugar.”

Jackfruit

A versatile fruit that thrives in hot climates, the jackfruit can be found in everything from Sri Lankan curries to Thai noodle dishes to South Indian ice creams. The strange looking, seed-covered treat has lately become popular in hip restaurants as a meat substitute, as its particular texture makes it a viable alternative to pulled pork.

While jackfruit would be quite challenging to incorporate into a cocktail (although “jackfruitini” does have a ring to it), Mitchell makes the case for juicing one and soaking lychees in it, as with lychee vodka.

Wakamomo

Itty-bitty grape-sized Japanese baby peaches called Wakamomo are an extremely sweet delicacy. Visually, Wakamomo look like olives or kiwis, but in flavor they resemble “a combination of muscat grape, plum, and peach,” according to Dominique Ansel. The Wakamomo can easily be swapped for the peppercorns in Mitchell’s original recipe: Combine with sparkling water and a light dried sake instead of Fernet-Branca to make a Wakamomo spritz.

Gymnema sylvestre

Gymnema sylvestre is an Indian herb that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for some 2,000 years. It blocks the tongue’s sweet receptors and thus prevents those who consume it — often in the form of a tea — from being able to taste sugar. Mitchell suggests that the addition of gymnema sylvestre could make very sweet wines, like muscat, more appealing to some.

Sichuan buttons

Surprisingly from a separate family than the peppercorns they share a regional name and tingly taste with, Sichuan buttons are native to multiple continents, including South America and Africa, and come from the flowers of the acmella oleracea — or “toothache plant,” according to Saveur. Where the peppercorns punch, the buttons blend that numbing sensation with a fizzy pop, “electrocuting” the mouth. The experience is drool-inducing whether you like the buttons or not, as they’re known to stimulate salivation.

“The smoked Chinese tea lapsang souchong already tastes a bit like scotch,” says Mitchell, “so if you put that on ice, added mezcal, and garnished it with these buttons, that would be quite the cocktail experience.”


To discover an array of deceptive dining experiences, click here.

To read about multisensory culinary experiences, go here.

To learn about delicious VR dining by Project Nourished, try here.

To sip a deceptive cocktail by a spicy Bay Area mixologist, head here.


To try more unique cocktails, head to Taste | Fernet-Branca

Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite, writer, photographer, and the current Editor-in-Chief of Brokelyn. She’s working on a book about the many of lives of the Gowanus Batcave. Her spirit animal is the F train.

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