Kitchen Tips

Understanding Ma La: The Secret To Sichuan’s Spiciest Dishes

As we continue to shine the light on Sichuan foods, it’s time to delve further into the flavours and ingredients that define this regional Chinese cuisine. Undoubtledly, the most unique feature of Sichuan cuisine is the culinary interplay of ‘ma la’. ‘Ma’ referers to the mouth-numbing qualities of Sichuan peppercorns, while ‘la’ is the warming heat of chillies.

Why so numb?

Sichuan peppercorns are known for their tingling effect on the mouth, which has been likened to novocaine, an anaesthetic used by dentists. You can read all about the pain-numbing effects of Sichuan peppercorns on this high-tech science article on, but all you really need to know is this citrusy, floral-flavoured berry (more closely related to the citrus trees than the pepper family) features a molecule called Hydroxy-alpha sanshool, which causes a tingling, desensitising sensation, as opposed to the capsaicin burn of chillies.

Can stand the heat

By numbing the lips and tongue, we’re able to withstand more heat from the chilli peppers (known as the ‘la’ componenent), and therefore endure much spicier dishes than would otherwise be possible – or pleasureable. Combine the slow build of those numbing qualities with the addictive properties of chilli peppers, and you have a recipe for culinary heaven or hell, depending on which way you look at it.

Where can I find ‘ma la’?

If you’re a heat-seeker then you’ll be glad to learn that ‘ma la’ is present in the majority of Sichuan’s signature recipes. Along with the marriage of Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers, ma la often also includes aromats such as ginger, garlic and spring onion for a full-on flavour punch.

Try these authentic Sichuan recipes for the true taste of ‘ma la’ at home:
Chongqing chicken


Sichuan chicken in chilli oil


Dan dan noodles

Dan Dan Noodles

Sichuan boiled fish

Sichuan Boiled Fish

Beef simmered in hot chilli soup


Trust us, you’re going to want to cool your jets with these tips for taming the heat of Sichuan cuisine.

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