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In The Family
What is Ma La?

Get to know the numbing-hot flavor of Sichuan cuisine.

If you know one thing about Sichuan cooking, it’s probably that the food’s spicy as all hell. If you know two things, you know that Sichuan pepper, a uniquely mouth-numbing spice with kicks of citrus and camphor, is as essential to the cuisine as soy sauce and a wok. Of course, the full story is more complicated than that. Those peppercorns don’t actually contribute any heat to Sichuan dishes; that’s the domain of liberally applied fresh and dried chiles, as well as fragrant chile oils. When these two kinds of spices come together, you get ma la, literally ‘numbing hot.’

The heat of the chile and anesthetizing effect of the peppercorns dance around each other in your mouth, alternating sensations of sharp painful spice and fuzzy aromatic relief. Not all dishes in Sichuan Province are about ma la—many don’t even involve chiles and Sichuan peppercorns—but it is one of the dominant themes in the local cooking, and the culinary envy of all of China. Think of it in American terms—what’s more popular than sweet-and-salty?

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.