Marx Foods sent me some Sechuan Buttons to play with, and it's taken a while for me to write this post, because they're so damn weird and interesting that I wanted to do as much as possible with them -- even making single servings of things, or half-size drinks, just so I could explore as many possibilities as possible. These are one of the most unusual new ingredients I've played with in quite some time.
The Sechuan Buttons from Marx are, I believe, from Koppert Cress -- that's what it says on my package, anyway -- and they're sometimes called sansho buttons when sold by other producers, or toothache plant in books on herbs and whatnot. The Sechuan name conjures up the herb's similarity to Szechuan peppercorns, but the menthol-like cooling numbness of Szechuan peppercorns is nothing compared to the almost-electric zap of Sechuan buttons.
These are the buttons we're talking about. They're about the size of golf tees. They have an herbal flavor, not bitter, but after a moment's contact with the tongue, they cause a tingling sensation, similar to the pins and needles you get when your hand falls asleep. It's not painful, but it's a definite sensation, as opposed to a flavor. Eating a Sechuan button by itself, it's very noticeable, and there's a lemony aftertaste to the herb. Eating it in prepared dishes, there's often a lag to the numbing, and the buzz may be diminished -- but it's still there, especially if you eat slowly. The stem has the same effect as the bud, but not quite as strong.
Sechuan Button taco
One of the first savory applications I tried was simply making a soft taco and adding chopped Sechuan button instead of chopped cilantro. It was good, but the unique sensations really got lost in the mix, showing up only in the occasional bite, like the Z in the alphabet soup. I have a feeling you could make a fantastic Sechuan button taco ... but you would need a lot of them. It's not just a question of the flavor standing up to other flavors -- it's the, well, surface area of the food in your mouth, you need more Sechuan buttons so that enough particles come into contact with your tongue.
Ma la skirt steak
Both the numbing and the name kept reminding me of my bastardization/generalization of Sichuan ma la sauce. "Mala" combines the Chinese characters for "numbing" and "spicy hot," and the traditional sauce simmers bean paste and garlic for hours with Sichuan peppercorns, chile peppers, and large amounts of oil. Chinese joints in the United States usually have a mala-something-or-other on the menu (often pork).
I tend to use it as shorthand for "the combination of Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, and ingredients from Chinese cuisine" -- generally soy sauce and stir-fried onions and garlic, often with watercress added at the end. I know, that's not much like the traditional sauce I just described -- but it's the peppercorn/chile, numbing/heating combination that I like, and shorthand is useful.
So in this case, I seared and sliced some skirt steak, and served it with a sauce of soy sauce, oyster sauce, a little vinegar, sriracha, a little demiglace for body, and Sechuan buttons -- all pureed in my Magic Bullet (yes, just like on the television). I let the sauce sit in the fridge for a few days, because I wanted the buttons to mingle with everything else.
This was nice. This worked well. There's a noticeable flavor difference between Sechuan buttons and Sichuan peppercorns -- not to oversimplify it, but in addition to the difference in the palpability of the numbing effect in the mouth, the buttons are herbal while the peppercorns are, well, peppery.
Dr Manhattan cocktail
My friend Caitlin suggested the name of this cocktail, which I then had to devise. This is a cocktail made along similar lines to the other cocktails I've seen made with Sechuan buttons, in which the button(s) are used as a garnish or muddled along with the other ingredients.
Since it's called Dr Manhattan, well, it had to be pretty close to a Manhattan (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters). I make my Manhattans with Punt e Mes vermouth, which is different enough from your standard sweet vermouths -- it's really halfway between a vermouth and an amaro -- that my Manhattans are already kind of variant. I used that as my starting point:
2 oz rye whiskey (18 year Sazerac)
3/4 oz Punt e Mes
1/4 oz Aperol
dash of St Elizabeth allspice dram
Sechuan button (roughly chopped and muddled with the Aperol)
This is a good cocktail, with or without the Sechuan button -- but see, the fact that I say "with or without" tells you the problem, which is that the Sechuan button is not really fully incorporated into it. It definitely adds something, don't get me wrong. Once in a while you get a fleck of shredded button on your tongue and it zaps you a little bit. That's very cool. But I felt like more could be done. I wanted it to be part of the cocktail, not just floating in the cocktail.
So this was the next step, and the killer app. When I buy more Sechuan buttons, the two things I will definitely do are to make this rum (or, I suppose, use some other spirit) and to make some sort of mala something or other.
I wasn't sure Sechuan button infused rum would work. I don't know the chemistry of the Sechuan button -- I don't know what compounds contribute its flavor or the numbing effect, and whether they're alcohol-soluble. Orange rind is perfect for infusions, for instance; apples, much less so, most of the apple flavor simply won't leave the apple that way. Where were Sechuan buttons going to fall on the apples-and-oranges spectrum?
I dropped a few Sechuan buttons into a small bottle of Prichard's rum -- one of my favorite rums, made in pot stills in Tennessee and aged in new oak -- and waited a couple weeks. I sampled some of it, liked it, waited a couple more to see if it would intensify. It did. I don't know if it will intensify further, but I can tell you that after a month of infusion, the rum is stronger than it was after two weeks -- though after two weeks, it was certainly perfectly fine and ready to be used.
What you get with this Sechuan rum is a rum that at first cloaks the Sechuan flavor because of the alcohol burn -- but then after the alcohol dissipates, it leaves behind a tingling tongue. It's not a flavor you have to search for, you'll notice it. At the same time, I wouldn't want to make anything too complex with this, like a tiki drink -- it could get lost in the mix.
But a rum and Coke? That's another story. I made two rum and Cokes, one very standard -- cold Coca-Cola, a little lime juice, and Sechuan rum. Very nice. Though because the rum is so diluted, if you drink it too quickly you don't notice the tingling until you stop.
So for maximum Sechuan button effect, you want to use this in a drink you'll sip:
Revised Sechuan rum and Coke
1 oz Angostura bitters
1 oz Rose's Kola tonic
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz Sechuan rum
The proportions here are based on the Trinidad Sour (which I believe originates with Giuseppe Gonzalez), a cocktail with a structure that fascinates me: equal parts sweetener and "nonpotable" bitters, reduced amounts of sour and strong. It really does work best with Angostura bitters or Fee's whiskey barrel aged (though WBA varies by vintage), though the latter would be an even more expensive choice here. I use "works well in a drink like the Trinidad Sour" as a target in developing my own bitters.
Kola tonic is hard to find; you can find it in well-stocked liquor stores in large cities, or online from South African food vendors. It provides the "Coke" element here -- an equal amount of Coca-Cola would not do, and Coca-Cola fountain syrup isn't exactly readily available (if you want to find it, though, look online for Breakmate refills).