ROBERT SMITH, host:
The plant looks innocent enough. It's a little yellow bud, about the size of a raspberry. But when you put it in your mouth, people say that something strange happens, a reaction that feels like…
Mr. KEITH DUSKO (Director of Operations, Haru): A little bit north of Pop Rocks and south of putting a 9-volt battery in your mouth.
SMITH: That's Keith Dusko. He's director of operations for Haru, a chain of restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The plant he's talking about are known sansho buttons or electric buttons or, as the ones we found are called, Szechuan buttons. And for the past couple of years, foodies in this country have been experimenting with them.
Keith Dusko uses them to put a little kick into his cocktails.
Mr. DUSKO: The first drink is called the Electric Lavender. The electric button comes on the side. And the second drink is called the Electricilla(ph), which is basically like a marguerita. The electric button is broken up and rimmed on the rim of the glass with some salt.
SMITH: And when you take a sip…
Mr. DUSKO: It goes from, oh my God to, this is really cool to, you know, this wasn't what I was expecting. It's kind of across the spectrum. As I've instructed our servers and bartenders to do is to make sure that they tell the customers to be careful and use caution.
SMITH: The buds are adding a tingle to sushi and sorbets. Chef Rob Welland from the restaurant Poste just came up with a recipe for a halibut dish that bites you back.
Mr. ROB WELLAND (Executive Chef, Poste): We're going to put half a button on top of the fish as it goes out, and we're also going to have a little bit in the curry broth itself. It's not just flavor, it's a feeling, actually, and I thought that was kind of interesting to introduce into the cuisine.
SMITH: So what biochemical magic does this little bud do to your tongue? It's this week's Science Out of the Box.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: We've called on Michael Nestrud. He's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and right now he's at Cornell working on his Ph.D. in the field of sensory evaluation. You're perfect for this. He joins us now from Ithaca, New York. Welcome.
Mr. MICHAEL NESTRUD (PhD student, Cornell University): Thank you.
SMITH: So tell me about this plant. I mean, where does it come from?
Mr. NESTRUD: The official name of this plant is acmella oleracea. And it also has a few common names, one of those is para cress which is used in Brazil. And the plant's been actually grown in a number of places including Asia. It's been grown in Japan, it's been grown in India, where actually they use it as a flavoring in chewing tobacco in India. It's just new to the United States. There's just been no one growing it for the purpose of selling it to the culinary industry.
SMITH: Well, this is about the size of a dried raspberry, and it kind of looks like it. It's yellow. I have one here in front of me, and you have one in Ithaca, there, right?
Mr. NESTRUD: Yes. I have multiple here.
SMITH: So, we're going to try this together. I know they recommend only having a bit of it, but I'm going to put a whole into my mouth.
Mr. NESTRUD: Okay. That sounds good. Are you ready to go?
SMITH: Okay, let's do it.
(Soundbite of chewing)
SMITH: Oh, well, it's like eating grass.
Mr. NESTRUD: Yeah, it's got a grassy flavor. It has a slow onset for the effect.
SMITH: Oh, oh, oh. Oh, there's a total tingle on the tip of my tongue and a citrusy flavor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Oh, I'm producing massive amounts of saliva. It's like I can feel every part of my tongue. Normally you're not conscious of your tongue. While I'm recovering from this, why don't you tell me why it's doing this to my mouth.
Mr. NESTRUD: Okay. So, there's a compound in this called spilanthol, and spilanthol is related to capsaicin, which is the heat component in chilies that most of your listeners are probably familiar with. And so what's happening is this compound is triggering the reaction via a nerve that goes through the tongue.
SMITH: Now, what is this nerve pathway specifically?
Mr. NESTRUD: The nerve pathway is called the trigeminal nerve pathway. It's one of the 12 cranial nerves, and the trigeminal nerve is the fifth one. And it has offshoots that go to your eyes, it goes to your nose, and it goes to your mouth. And it is responsible for the transmission of the signals to tell your mouth to chew, and it's also responsible for physical and chemical sensation in your head and your face. So, it's this pathway that gets triggered when you eat everything from wasabi, capsaicin and chilies and when you eat these Szechuan buttons.
SMITH: That's Michael Nestrud. He is our resident expert today on these little Szechuan buttons. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. NESTRUD: Thank you very much. I appreciate (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: From the sour to the sweet now, or I guess we call it bittersweet. This just in from London's Daily Mail. Marmalade is struggling to maintain its place on crumpets, toast and muffins. The newspaper reports that sales have dropped by eight percent in the past year. In 2006 alone, nearly 500,000 families - I don't know how they measure this - stopped buying the orange spread.
What could be causing the drop in marmalade consumption? Some blame cereal. Curse you, Tony the Tiger. It seems that the orange stuff is losing its clout with the younger generation. In an effort to stop this, the marmalade industry and some celebrity chefs are urging parents to force the orange stuff on their kids. I guess it's better than Szechuan buttons.
In a few minutes, another shocking tale, the not-quite-true Hollywood story of Cheeta the Chimp.
(Soundbite of chimpanzee)
SMITH: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.