What Is 'Ma La'?


Chillies were brought to China around 300 years ago and quickly found a home in the Sichuan province. The combination of Sichuan peppercorns (ma) and dried chilies (la) is perhaps the most known flavours of Sichuan cuisine. Ma denotes the sensation of pins and needles and la refers to spice and heat. When these two flavour profiles come together, you get ‘ma la’, literally meaning ‘numbing hot’. All the humidity makes Sichuan an exceptional chilli-growing region. It grows prolifically throughout this area of China. The reason the Sichuan province embraced chilli with such open arms - monsoonal weather. Oppressively hot and steamy summers give way to freezing, wet winters.

What Is 'Ma La'?

Not A Peppercorn?

The famous Sichuan peppercorn that gives dishes like Mapo Tofu their distinctive flavour, isn't actually pepper at all! It's a dried red berry from the prickly ash tree and really isn’t even all that hot. Sichuan peppercorns have a lemony, menthol type characteristic and give that distinctive tongue-numbing sensation. They contain a molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool which has a mild anaesthetic property, causing tingling and numbness when it lands in your mouth. So, it’s not exactly 'hot', just an extreme buzzing feeling for your palate. Think of the reaction your mouth gets when drinking carbonated beverages. Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, causing a kind of general neurological confusion, wow! Ironically, Sichuan peppers are also highly acidic and sweet. It's the acid flavour that stops the spiciness from becoming one-dimensional and overpowering. It draws the spiciness out and introduces to it a sweetness.

Sichuan Flavours

Sichuan cuisine relies on a balance of seven flavours, instead of the traditional five. These are salty, sweet, bitter, acidity, pungency, nutty (savoury), and of course, spicy. The spice as we know it, is called 'málà' - ma (Sichuan peppercorns), la (chillies) is included in a lot of Sichuan cooking, however it should seldom dominate. Balancing all seven flavours is key to good Sichuanese cookery. Ginger, garlic, spring onions and other aromatics are often added to enhance málà's flavour. Fermented bean paste is also common addition. Málà is used in many popular dishes such as kung pao chicken, hot pot, dan dan noodles and fish fragrant vegetable sides.

It's true that once you get past the intense heat of málà’s spice, it is sweetness that remains on the tongue. Sichuan cooking enhances this through harmonising seasonings with a liberal dose of sweet. Unlike Cantonese food, which is distinctively sweet, Sichuan's sweetness is gently pulled back by the spicy notes and perfect balance within the seven flavours.