Ingredient Spotlight: Szechuan Buttons

published Feb 8, 2010
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

A hot new food trend that is generating a lot of buzz – both literally and figuratively – is a tiny, yellow, strawberry-shaped edible flower called a Szechuan button. This food is known not for its nutrition or flavor, but for the unique sensation it gives. What’s the deal?

Well, when you bite down on this flower, it gives a sensation that feels like pop rocks in your mouth! After about ten seconds you start to feel a tingling, electric-like sensation on your lips and tongue, and then a cooling sensation in your throat. In some people, it causes salvia production. Many people have compared the sensation to placing your tongue on a 9-volt battery. While users overall say this is a pleasant sensation, first-time users are advised to try this sparingly.

Szechuan buttons (Acmella oleracea) are native to the tropics of Brazil and are available year-round. They have a Chinese name due to their similarity to szechuan pepper, which also creates a tingling, popping sensation in the mouth. They are commonly cooked in salads, sauces, soups, crumbled on sorbet, used as a palate cleanser, and used as cocktail garnishes. The flavor is slightly bitter and herbal, but it’s the sensation that people remember. Simply pinch off a few petals and sprinkle them in your food or drink.

So how does this work? The flowers contain a natural painkiller called spilanthol that is used to numb toothache pain. Spilanthol is similar to capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat. It triggers a reaction in the nerves in the mouth that control motor and sensory functions.

This ingredient is a bit expensive – Marx Foods sells a clamshell of 30 flowers for $39.95, but if you wanted to have an unique tasting party like a miracle fruit tasting party, one order of Szechuan buttons can entertain all your friends. Any leftovers will keep in the fridge for 14 days.

(Image: Marx Foods)