Sichuan “Mouth Numbing” Corn on the Cob

Mouth Numbing Sichuan Corn

Mouth numbing. This ubiquitous descriptor for Sichuan food stems from the way Chinese people have always characterized Sichuan spicy – 麻辣 (ma la), and it literally means “numbing spicy”. There are different types of spicy food in China, and Sichuan is known for its numbing quality – a combination of their peppers and the Sichuan peppercorn. If you hop on over to the HuNan region, you’ll find a totally different kind of spicy – more direct and aggressive. I’m partial to Sichuan numbing spicy – a heat that creeps up on you and simultaneously has you craving more, until you realize that your lips are somehow burning and your mouth is becoming numb and tingly, which makes you think you can handle more spicy!!! My grandma was from Sichuan before she moved to Shanghai, and my dad always boasts that he fed us chilies when we were young to give us tolerance to spicy food early on. It’s a story he loves to tell at gatherings – mostly about how I bawled my head off at the first taste of a chili pepper. And now, my spice tolerance is entirely due to that moment…Thanks, Dad :).

Mouth Numbing Sichuan Corn

Mouth Numbing Sichuan CornMouth Numbing Sichuan CornAwhile ago I saw Amanda of Heartbeet Kitchen raving about her method of making corn, which is boiling it! I immediately went over to see it because that’s actually my favorite way of making it too! This obsession I have with corn comes from my first experiences with a seafood boil. In the bay area, restaurants come in and out of fashion, and when I was a teenager Boiling Crab was the IT place to go. We put on bibs, ordered bags of crawfish with spicy sauce and another bag of sausage, potato, and CORN in more spicy sauce, and it was the best thing ever. Only later did I realize it was inspired by the crawfish boils of New Orleans, and when I was in college I actually went to NOLA and had a real boil, and that was that. I am now forever a seafood boil fan. Besides the crawfish (obviously), my favorite part was the corn. Boiled with the seafood and spices, I didn’t even need a sauce or butter and would gobble one, two, even three corns on the cob along with my seafood. When I hopped over to the farmer’s market last Sunday, I thought I would find myself drawn to the newly birthed squashes and apples and all the fall produce, but my eyes fell on big buckets of corn, and I couldn’t resist. First, I wanted to try Amanda’s way of boiling corn. Second, I’ve had this idea of spicy sichuan corn in my head for awhile, and it was time to put it to fruition.

Mouth Numbing Sichuan CornMouth Numbing Sichuan Corn

My lips burned, my mouth was numb, and I was chugging water like no other, but I was happy, eating my way through many cobs of spicy corn.

This recipe has two parts, and if you were to make one, please make the mouth numbing sichuan chili oil, because you could use this for so much more than just corn. One batch will last you quite awhile, and it can go in stir fries, sauces, and even pasta (like this spicy bigoli!).

Mouth Numbing Sichuan CornMouth Numbing Sichuan CornMouth Numbing Sichuan Cornsichuan-corn-bettysliu-com-11

The corn is boiled in a water with a touch of miso and dried chilis and chili flakes, giving the corn some hints of heat without even applying any chili oil. The oil is mixed in with butter and then when the corn is ready, this spicy oil butter is spread on top, and the result is just delicious. I’ve made this 3 times already 😛 (got to use up all that corn!)

RECIPE: Mouth Numbing Sichuan Chili Oil
*note: I like it super garlicky, but you can decrease the amount or omit the head of garlic if you so choose to. I would recommend buying the chili flakes and dried red chilies in a Chinese supermarket.

cloves garlic, minced
1/2 head garlic, or about 4 to 5 whole cloves
1 1″ nub of fresh ginger
tablespoons Sichuan chili flakes
dried red chilies
star anise
cup vegetable oil
tablespoons red Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground
tablespoon soy sauc

In a saucepan, heat up 4 cloves of minced garlic, the half head of garlic, ginger, chili flakes, dried red chilies, star anise, and vegetable oil over medium heat, until sizzling. Stir to prevent burning and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, watching the garlic to make sure it doesn’t burn. The garlic should be lightly browned.

Turn off heat and add the ground red Sichuan peppercorns and 1 more tablespoon of chili flakes. Stir until the oil stops sizzling.

Add the soy sauce and the remaining 2 cloves of minced garlic, and transfer a jar. Let it sit for 3 to 4 hours. Then, put the jar in the fridge. Remove star anise, ginger, and whole garlic cloves from the jar.

Sichuan Corn on the Cob

Fresh sweet corn, husked, de-eared, rinsed
Water + salt
2 tbsp chili oil
½ stick butter, softened
salt + more to taste
1 tbsp miso paste
3-4 dried chilies
2 tbsp chili flakes
finely chopped chives or scallion

Bring a large pot of water (so that corns will fully be covered) with dried chilies and chili flakes to a boil. Add salt and dissolve miso paste in.

Meanwhile, combine butter with chili oil until well combined. Add in chives. Set aside.

Add corn and press so that they are fully submerged. Then, simply wait until it comes back to a boil. Let boil for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and rinse with cold water, until corn is warm enough to handle.

Immediately spread with chili oil butter, and sprinkle with more salt and pepper.

Mouth Numbing Sichuan Corn



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  • I need to come stay with you so you can introduce me to all of these amazing asian flavors Betty! I love the description of this corn here. And although I’ve been loving my broiled 15 minutes corn all summer, I’m keen on the building method at times too! This seasoned butter though. Swooning over here. <3ReplyCancel

  • So with a description like “mouth numbing” in the title, I could not resist popping over to see what this was about and you can imagine the big fat smile on my face when I read about how this is kind of influenced by your trip to NOLA! Yay! :)

    We have this crawfish place out here in Portland that claims to serve “Louisiana style” crawfish boil platters but when Barrett and I went we found it was more like the crawfish boil method from Louisiana but with a bunch of very intensely spicy Chinese spices, which after reading your write up here I feel like have to be some kind of sichuan peppers. And as much as I am a Louisiana-style crawfish boil purist, I have to admit that those crawfish, potatoes, and corn were some of the best I’ve ever had. (Side note: I love love love spicy, burn your face off food.) Maybe one day we should have a NOLA crawfish boil, two ways–one spicy Chinese flavors and the other traditional cajun flavors. I think it would make my heart really really happy 😉ReplyCancel

  • hahaha–if only my parent had done the sichuan training right off the bat! I have a terrible tolerance for spicy foods :( but I kinda really love ’em anyway sooo I’m totally giving this a shot. Mouth numbing tolerance training, here I come!!ReplyCancel

  • I need to try some of this mouth-numbing sichuan chilli-oil – I love the sweaty forehead, runny nose good spicy food produces! Late summer corn on the cob just reminds me of warm evenings spent sitting on the beach in New Zealand, salty air and sticky skin. Very keen to give your tip of adding chilli and miso to the actual boiling water a go. xReplyCancel

  • Oh mannnnn my mouth waters as I look at these gorgeous photos….I have to say that Sichuan food is one that I need to be schooled on badly! I can already tell that I’d love it to death (pun??) since it’s that kind of spice I live for, and kind of sounds like Indian quality of spice…? creeps up at the back of the throat?ReplyCancel

  • These pictures (heart emoji) and the flavours just sound to die for. Thanks so much for sharing.ReplyCancel

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