Szechuan pepper: a Chinese spice so hot that it cools
“Compared to people in other provinces, Sichuan people pay more attention to the quality of life. We believe that since we are alive today, we should live for the present, ”Luo said. “Eating málà supports this state of mind. “
It’s almost as if the powerful burning of spicy foods, coupled with the afterglow of the pain numbing peppercorns, somehow makes the food málà cathartic. Some dishes even get their name from this belief: shāngxīn liángfěn, or “sad jelly noodles”, would be named because the strong flavors of málà will bring tears to your eyes. “If you are sad and eat jelly noodles, you will no longer be sad,” Luo said. “You will be sweaty and you will feel invigorated, as if you have just let go of negative feelings. You could say that the málà flavor of Sichuan is the gastronomic encapsulation of the ebb and flow of life: alternating discomfort and contentment, taking turns to reign over the senses.
Back home and craving for the potent flavors of Chengdu, I thought back to what Luo told me when I dipped into a steaming bowl of mapo tofu (or “pockmarked grandmother’s tofu,” so named because it was first served by a Chengdu grandmother in the 1800s with scars from smallpox. It is a tangy dish of tofu and swirled pork with fermented bean paste, chili peppers and, of course, Sichuan pepper. The frenzy of the flavors set off firecrackers on my tongue, soothed moments later by the welcome sensation of numbness. But, like I learned it in Chengdu, there is an addicting quality to this punch. The chillies didn’t wait long before beckoning me for another bite.
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