When I got sick and lost my sense of smell — a common neurological symptom of Covid-19 — the foods I loved became muddled and ugly. My brain was incapable of interpreting the delicious information floating around me, unable to detect, let alone identify, any of the aromas I took in through my nose. Without smells to guide me, my sense of taste faded and food flattened out, going gray and muted, dull and lifeless. Cheese became rubber and paste. Popcorn turned into thorny foam. The bland squish of a roast-chicken breast made me recoil. My appetite dwindled, until I was brought back to the pure pleasures of eating by a classic Sichuan flavor: mala.
The word translates to numbing (ma) and spicy (la), and it’s a result of a partnership between Sichuan peppercorns and chiles. “Flavorwise, it’s so intriguing,” said Jing Gao, who was born in Chengdu and now owns the Chinese food company Fly by Jing, which specializes in Sichuan ingredients like chile crisp and dried peppers. Mala is just one of many flavors in Sichuan cuisine, but it’s immensely popular, in part because it’s unlike any other. “That’s because there’s a texture to the flavor,” she said.
You experience that texture as a buzzing current through your mouth and lips, thanks to a molecule called hydroxy-alpha sanshool found in Sichuan peppercorns, which grow on Zanthoxylum simulans and Z. bungeanum, both shrubs in the citrus family. The pepper has plenty of flavor, too. The writer Fuchsia Dunlop compares peppercorn plants to vines grown to make wine grapes — capable of producing fruit that’s deeply expressive of its terroir. Sichuan cooks have worked with the ingredient for thousands of years and added chiles to their repertoires more recently, sometime after sailors took them to China from the Americas in the late 1500s. In her chile crisp, Gao uses more modern Chinese varieties that have been bred since then, like the long, skinny, intensely fragrant Erjingtiao. “When the chile pepper arrived, locals went wild for it,” she said. “They found the two ingredients in combination worked extremely well — they were symbiotic, they kept you coming back for more.”
Mala starts with the rising warmth of chiles and the soft, electric purr of pepper, each magnifying the other, increasing in intensity as you take more bites, making your mouth water and deepening the other flavors in the dish. As your tongue and lips hum, the effect isn’t pure anesthetization but a kind of heightened sensitivity. When I was sick and isolated — worrying feverishly that I wouldn’t get back my sense of smell, or that it would be diminished or distorted, that I wouldn’t be able to do my job again — a no-contact delivery of mapo tofu and boiled fish richly flavored with mala made me aware of the blood rushing through my face. It reminded me that I was still alive. And that was enough. I could taste with some dimension, in color, with exhilaration. Or at least, despite the anosmia, I could feel as if I were tasting.
Mala has become so popular that it has been commercialized and exported to huge success — not just through mala hot-pot restaurants, which continue to open all over China and beyond, but in packaged mala-flavored snacks like potato chips, nuts, soup packets and jerky. “You can mala anything,” said Jason Wang, turning the flavor into a verb. Wang’s chain of New York restaurants, Xi’an Famous Foods, specializes in the foods of Xi’an, but in a new cookbook named after his restaurants, he includes a mala beef dish finished with a slip of chile oil.
Following Wang’s recipe when I was sick was disorienting. Cutting up garlic and ginger was like working in a toy kitchen — as if everything was plastic and had to go back in the box when I was done. I had to look for visual cues because my nose wouldn’t tell me anything. But after I added the thick, salty Pixian paste to the pan, and it released a beautiful, seasoned red oil, I knew the dish would turn out OK. The cooking water, wine and soy sauce reduced to make a dark, powerful braising liquid, and after I added the ground peppercorns, it became the ideal dressing for a bowl of thick, chewy noodles — tingly and spicy and tingly again. I used the same recipe on a batch of sautéed mushrooms instead of meat, and used the leftover sauce to poach eggs. I poured it over hot rice. I used it to simmer tofu and dress blanched broccoli greens.
If Wang is right, and you can mala anything, his simple recipe is a gift, and a way to keep my appetite up while I’m still recovering — however long that might take.