Sichuan peppercorn: A Chinese spice so hot it cools

“Compared to people from other provinces, Sichuan folks pay more attention to quality of life. We believe, since we are alive today, we should live for the present,” said Luo. “Eating málà supports this mindset.”

It’s almost as if the powerful burn of spicy foods, coupled with the afterglow of peppercorns numbing away the pain, somehow makes málà food cathartic. Some dishes even derive their names from this belief: shāngxīn liángfěn, or “sad jelly noodles”, is said to be so named because the strong málà flavours will bring tears to your eyes. “If you’re sad, and you eat some of those jelly noodles, you won’t be sad anymore,” said Luo. “You’ll be dripping sweat and feel reinvigorated, as if you just vented any negative feelings.” One might say Sichuan’s málà flavour is the gastronomic encapsulation of life’s ebb and flow: alternating discomfort and contentment, taking turns to reign over the senses.

Back at home and craving Chengdu’s potent flavours, I thought about what Luo said as I tucked into a steaming bowl of mapo tofu (or “pock-marked grandmother’s tofu”, so named because it was first served by a Chengdu grandmother in the 1800s with smallpox scars. It’s a pungent dish of tofu and pork swirled with fermented broad bean paste, chillies and, of course, Sichuan peppercorn. The frenzy of flavours set off firecrackers on my tongue, quietened moments later by the welcome sensation of numbness. But, as I learned in Chengdu, there’s an addictive quality to that one-two punch. The chillies didn’t wait long before beckoning me for another bite.

Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.