Listen. Warning, disclaimer, whatever: yes, this is spicy stuff. I mean, look at it; it’s practically glowing. I’ve got the under-eye sweats just thinking about it.
Don’t let that stop you, though: this recipe results in one of my favorite foods in this whole dumb world, and that’s a statement I don’t make lightly. The level of spice is, beyond a point, totally up to you. Plus, the whole thing takes like twenty minutes to put together once you’ve committed it to memory—you can whip some up for a quick lunch if you half it, but don’t. Make enough for leftovers. It’s better after a night in the fridge.
Now, I’m not what you’d call “spice averse.” I went to Hell Night a couple times; I ordered—and finished—the Pasta From Hell. I’ve got whatever kind of brain chemistry problem it is that makes some of us seek out capsaicin—a chili pepper’s evolved defense against being eaten—and the iron stomach to match. Well, maybe copper; I didn’t, uh, quite make it to work the next day.
That aside, I don’t have a lot of use for science-project spicy. Y’know, the little glass bottles of syrupy, purpleish, xenomorph-blood-flavored hot sauces someone gifts you as, like, a fun joke—they have a firetruck or the devil or some offensive nonsense on the label; you know the stuff.
This isn’t that; bright red though it may be, it isn’t some spicy-for-spicy’s-sake novelty thing. This recipe results in one of my favorite foods in this whole dumb world, a statement I don’t make lightly. Plus, the whole thing takes like twenty minutes to put together, start to finish, once you’ve committed it to memory—it’s something you can throw together for a quick lunch if you half it, but don’t. Make enough for leftovers. It’s better the second day.
I like hot sauce the way I like black pepper: for the synergistic effect it has on other flavors. For that reason, I dig on Sichuan food in a big way. It is spicy, no question—but not taste-obliteratively so. For that, we have the Sichuan peppercorn to thank.
The term málà is a combination of two Chinese characters: “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (hot)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.
—Mala Sauce, Wikipedia
I know what you’re thinking—that just sounds like “hot.” Like, the numb lips that come with too-spicy food. Sichuan peppercorns aren’t peppercorns, though—they’re not related to peppers of any kind. They’re the empty husks of seeds from the prickly ash shrub—the seeds themselves are discarded.
Those husks contain hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which—in the strictest culinary terms—tastes a little bit like licking a nine-volt battery feels, and we straight-up don’t know why exactly. That might not sound super appealing, surface level, but it works by activating the neurons responsible picking up innocuous sensations—chemically, it sends your brain a “everything is fine here” signal, like a gentle touch might produce. It does so to the point where your nervous system gets a little confused by a sharply rising chorus of escalating “SOMETHING IS HAPPENING; IT’S FINE” messages, and kinda shuts down a little. The result is a kinda-numb, kinda-tingly sensation that’s difficult to put to words.
This is the polar opposite of how hot peppers work. Capsaicin activates sensory neurons called “nociceptors,” which are normally responsible for detecting thermal pain—hence the unique sensation of tasting the way hot feels. That reaction means sending your brain “SOMETHING IS HAPPENING; IT’S BAD” messages. It kicks off your whole fight-or-flight system, which is why some folks experience a “rush” from spicy food. You’re placing your whole endocrine system into a state of imagined crisis.
Scientifically speaking, málà is super confusing. You’re simultaneously triggering two opposite biochemical reactions, and your brain is getting “EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE” and “NOTHING IS WRONG” signals at the same time. In print, it looks like a nightmare. In practice, it means getting all the fiery, flavor-enhancing benefits of là, with the unpleasant burn muted in a major way—it’s just as spicy, but less hot somehow.
You gotta try it. You can finesse the spiciness by reducing or omitting the chili flakes; I’ve done it, and it’s still plenty flavorful.
I’ve never heard of some of these ingredients
Well, it is time to hear of them. There are a bunch of things in here that are super common to Sichuan cuisine, but not so common to the average western pantry. Fortunately, we’re talking about dried stuff and fermented stuff—it all keeps for ages. You’ll find more uses for it all, especially if you like to chuck the occasional stir-fry together—I’m working on a guide to my favorite stir-fry pantry staples as we speak, so we’ll figure out some uses for ’em, I promise.
Substitutions and Additions
I’ve swapped out the leeks for the whites and light green parts of a handful of scallions—it works great. I’ve swapped ’em out for two or three large shallots—also works great.
I’ve added Beyond Burger “ground beef,” seitans both bacon-ish and uh plain, and ground beef or pork (maybe five or six ounces). You probably get the idea, here; it all works great. If you wanna protein this up some, crisp up whatever you’ve got on hand at the very start—once you’ve brought the peanut oil back up to smoking, but before adding the chili paste.
If you’re thinking about getting into Sichuan cooking, pick up a copy of Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty. Everything I’ve tried from it so far has been great.
Recipe: Mapo Tofu
Adapted from a recipe in Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty.
1 Block Silken tofu
1/2 C. Peanut oil
21/2 Tbsp. Doubanjiang
1 Tbsp. Fermented black beans
2 tsp. Sichuan chili flakesOptional
1 C. Utility Stock
1 tsp. Sugar
2 tsp. Light soy sauce
4 Tbsp. Cornstarch, mixed into 6 Tbsp. cold water
Sichuan chili oil, to taste
Scallion greens, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns, lightly roasted and finely ground
Cut the tofu into ~1 inch cubes, and the leeks into roughly one-inch horse ears.
Lightly oil your wok, wipe away the excess, and place it over high heat until smoking. Add the peanut oil and heat until just smoking, then add the chili paste and turn the heat down to medium. Stir-fry for thirty seconds or so. Add fermented black beans and chili flakes, if using, and stir fry for another thirty seconds or so.
Add stock (keep a cover handy, as the hot oil might spit here) and stir well. Gently add tofu cubes, and carefully mix by pushing the contents of the wok around with the back of a ladle or spatula. Season with sugar and soy sauce, as well as additional chili flakes, if you’ve got somethin’ to prove, here.
Add leeks and stir gently. When just cooked—only a few minutes—add the cornstarch mixture a tablespoon at a time, mixing carefully, until the sauce has just thickened enough to cling to the tofu. Serve topped with chili oil, a dusting of Sichuan peppercorns, and a handful of finely chopped scallion greens.