I love traveling. But I love eating even more.
During our flight from Detroit to Beijing, I dreamt of the noodles and dumplings that would soon slide past my tastebuds. Though I was prepared for a raft of new culinary experiences, I had no idea just how unique some of these experiences would be. After all, the United States is no stranger to Chinese cuisine — my hometown in Maine (population: not many) has three Chinese restaurants. Three! I expected Chinese food in China to be more or less like Chinese food everywhere else. Only better. Much to my surprise, it was filled with flavors and tastes I could never have imagined. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on one of these flavors: the tingly buzz of the Sichuan peppercorn.
Spicy and citrusy, numbing yet soothing, its flavor profile defies a simple description. The first few times I had noodles seasoned with this spice, I wasn’t even sure what I was eating. I just knew I liked it. At the same time, I was shocked and surprised that I had never experienced this before, and I wanted an explanation. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to ruin everyone’s foodie fun and loop this back to public policy.)
Between 1968 and 2005, the Sichuan peppercorn was banned by the USDA for fear that it could spread canker to the United States’ citrus tree population. My guess is that this is why I hadn’t encountered it in American Chinese food. Now that the ban has been lifted, I’m told it’s possible to find many dishes in the United States that use the spice. Nonetheless, let this be a cautionary tale to aspiring gastronomes and policymakers everywhere: policy decisions have far-reaching and often unintended consequences. And I don’t want to miss out on any more good food!