Since You Asked: Garlic, ginger can stoke fire, too

I make a peanut sauce for pad Thai with fresh garlic, ginger and lime juice, as well as some sriracha and fish sauces and two types of vinegar. My husband complained after eating it that he must be allergic to ginger because his tongue felt numb. The next time I left out the ginger and — just to be safe — the hot sauce. I didn't tell him until after he complained of the same sensation. Could the tingling be from lime juice?

— Wilma C., via email

It sounds like even without the chili sauce, your pad Thai packs a punch.

Pungent compounds in ginger (gingerol) and garlic (allicin), particularly combined with some acid (i.e., the lime juice) activate sensory receptors of neurons on the tongue, inside the mouth and throat. But because they activate different receptors, these compounds in food can collide into a perception of pain, says Bruce Bryant, a senior research associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

"Capsaicin and gingerol activate one kind of sensory receptor on these pain neurons," Bryant told the Chicago Tribune. "Garlic and horseradish and radishes activate a different kind of receptor that's on many of the same neurons. It doesn't really discriminate."

Cinnamon, horseradish, wasabi and radishes are other sensory stimulants. Like capsaicin in chilies, their effects have less to do with taste and more to do with feeling, hence the tongue-tingling.

These sensations are especially powerful when foods are in their fresh states (think salsas or pestos). You could try stir-frying the garlic and ginger to temper their pungency instead of leaving them raw in the sauce. Then try just zesting the lime, instead of juicing it, so you get lime flavor from the zest's oils without so much acid.

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