By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Offer a sample of something "New!" to people in the food business, and their reaction is bound to be along the lines of been there, tasted that.
Which is why Nicolas Mazard is having such fun these days, doling out tiny bits of a potent flower bud called the Sechuan button. The 29-year-old Frenchman is manager of the U.S. arm of Koppert Cress BV, a Holland-based grower of flavored micro-greens. For the past nine months, he has punctuated his sales pitches to restaurant chefs, including several in Washington, with an introductory pinch taken solo on the tongue.
No jaded responses thus far. In fact, having tasted the button at a recent food trade show in Orlando and again repeated times in the name of story research, this reporter is having a hard time keeping the use of exclamation points to a minimum. It's an interesting chew, to say the least. A mix of Altoids and Tellicherry peppercorns wouldn't come close.
"Without joking, 80 percent of the people say, 'Whooaa!' " Mazard recounts with delight. "They say, 'This is the most amazing thing I've ever put in my mouth!' And, 'It feels like licking a nine-volt battery!' "
The third opinion might not seem as desirable as the second, but both are fair assessments. Sensations from even one-eighth of a half-inch-long, deceptively innocuous little yellow nub will come in waves. There's a grassy start, then a rush into Pop-Rocks territory as a tingling-slight numbing combo hits the back of the soft palate. Some people will feel the saliva-stimulating effects of the bud's natural alkylamides; many report a cold-fresh finish in the throat that, like any good gift, keeps on giving long after the plant matter has disappeared down the hatch.
"And 99 percent of the people smile and find it funny," Mazard reports.
Could something so small be the next big thing?
To people in South America, Asia and North Africa, the Sechuan button is nothing new. According to Mazard, it has long been dispensed for stammering, toothaches and stomach distress. Spilanthol, the alkaloid that gives Sechuan buttons their electric effect, is thought to offer protection against certain parasites. The buds come from the Spilanthes acmella-- or toothache plant or salad cress, as it's commonly called -- a member of the sunflower ( Asteraceae) family, according to the Gardener's Resource Center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Culinarily, the buttons -- which Koppert Cress so named because their numbing effect is akin to sensations sometimes brought on when eating Szechuan pepper -- are not related to that spice. They are used in some Southeast Asian salads and in regional Brazilian stews, paired with chili peppers and garlic as a kind of triple-threat flavor enhancer. They might have provided the edge last year for chef Jeff Ramsey of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, who took "Sushi of the Year" honors in Britain's annual Sushi Awards, sponsored by Eat-Japan. His winning dish, Electric Eel, was described by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun as "eel basted in a thick, sweet sauce, with Szechuan [sic] button flowers and roast pineapple."
The buttons usually are used raw, as a final touch to infuse drinks and sorbets. But Mazard says the mouth feel is evident even when the buttons are cooked.
Koppert Cress has sold them in Europe for the past five years, acquiring the buttons from small growers around the world, Mazard says. It claims to be the only company that has brought the buttons to the United States, where they are now being grown, along with other Koppert Cress vegetables, on Long Island.
The Sechuan button buzz in America is getting louder, even though the bud is limited to wholesale trade through Koppert Cress's distributor, Coosemans Worldwide. Esquire magazine recently pegged it at No. 85, "Cooking Ingredient of the Year," on its list of 100 emerging trends and products. Clued-in chefs know of Spanish kitchen wizard Ferran Adri¿'s button-infused edible paper, which is offered as a cleansing agent between courses, and electric milk.
At Anthos restaurant in New York, where chef Michael Psilakis is said to be at the vanguard of new Aegean cuisine, the buttons are employed as an acid, "like lemon juice," Psilakis told Esquire.
Washington chefs are still in the lab with Sechuan buttons, one might say. This past summer, Mazard made seven stops around town, with Michel Richard Citronelle, Poste, Equinox, the Occidental and PS-7 on his list. Richard liked them, says restaurant spokeswoman Mel Davis, and is thinking about ways he might use them. Todd Gray of Equinox says his staff "went crazy for them" -- "a little intense, raw!" Their cocktail experimentation continues; the chef-owner has just put the buttons to use on the fall menu in a garnish presentation for cheese plates. The tiny petals and some lemon thyme infuse a small pot of honey that accompanies roasted kabocha squash, sweet peppers and toasted walnuts.
At Poste in Penn Quarter, chef Robert Weland offers patrons a Concord grape soda float with lemon verbena sorbet into which shreds of Sechuan buttons are dispersed through a soda siphon. The dessert is concocted tableside.
"I'm definitely getting some feedback," says Weland, who is intrigued by the Sechuan button's citrusy, numbing effect. He says there may be another application on the way.
"I'm still thinking about it, but my mind's going toward a melon soup or pastry. It's really amazing!"
News researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this article.