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.
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.
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.”