Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What's the Sichuan Pepper Frequency, Kenneth?

dish of numbing and spicy bullfrog
Spicy bullfrog with numbing Sichuan peppers at a restaurant in Chongqing

Like many others who enjoy Sichuan cuisine, I am a big fan of Sichuan pepper, which has a hard-to-miss numbing effect. So I am happy to (belatedly) link to a fascinating and informative piece by Taylor Holiday about why Sichuan pepper is difficult to find in the U.S. But there is one small part with which I disagree:
Even more than other spices, endowed by evolution with defensive odors and tastes, Sichuan pepper seems designed not to be eaten. Once you get past the thorns, the taste of a fresh or freshly dried berry leaves your mouth, tongue, and lips buzzing and numb for several minutes. It is literally electric: The active ingredient, sanshool, causes a vibration on the lips measured at 50 hertz, the same frequency as the power grid in most parts of the world, according to a 2013 study at University College London.
Sichuan pepper's vibrating effect is rather notable. But that the vibration has been measured at a frequency similar to the frequency of many electrical grids doesn't make it "literally electric". It doesn't even make it figuratively electric in any particularly meaningful way. (Just to be clear, the referenced 2013 study doesn't mention this similarity.)

Basically, this is because hertz is simply a measure of the number of cycles per second and there's nothing special about the measurement of 50 hertz on its own. For example, on a standardly tuned piano tuned there is a key for the musical note G (Contra octave) which will produce a sound at 48.9994 hertz. In this case, the hertz measurement reflects the fundamental frequency of that note. If you wanted, you could retune the piano so that the key produced a sound at 50 hertz. In either case the note isn't any more electric or Sichuan peppery than the other notes on the piano, even if it's an electric piano. Similarly, 50 hertz electrical grids aren't literally the musical note G.

For another example, a strobe light could be set to flicker at 50 hertz. Again, this wouldn't be any more electric than if it flickered slower or faster.

And countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Guatemala have electrical grids with a frequency of 60 hertz. Is Sichuan pepper less electric there?

So enjoy some Sichuan peppers. But unless you're also sticking your finger in an electric outlet while grounded (note: do not do this) or something similar, the experience won't be literally electric because of the exact frequency of the vibrations. The buzz is grand nonetheless.

Additional note: For those who don't understand the reference to Kenneth, see here.

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