The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Cooking Sichuan Blog

Sourcing Hua Jiao (Sichuan Peppercorn)

My Favorite Buzz: Sichuan Peppercorn~~ “My mouth is sleeping,” Fong Chong said as she worked her way through a plate of mala-flavored cabbage stir-fry. “But she opens and lets me eat.” And there you have it in a nutshell, the addictive power of Sichuan pepper. If there is one taste most closely associated with Sichuan cuisine, it is Sichuan peppercorn, the numbing spice. The bride of the chili pepper in many Sichuan dishes, it is the má—numbing—to chili pepper’s là—spicy hot—in the word málà, which is practically synonymous with Sichuan food....

Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)

The Dan Dan Mian Challenge~~ Dan dan noodles was the first real Sichuan dish I ever had, when Grand Sichuan International, the first real Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan in decades, opened close to my home in Chelsea in the mid-’90s. I’ll never forget the moment when they sat it on the table. It looked like a plain bowl of boiled noodles with some ground pork on the top, but then I realized I needed to stir it up myself and began to turn the noodles and crispy pork  over in the...

Dan Dan Noodles: A Judgement on My Motherhood

Fong Chong, then 12 years old, had been my daughter for a good nine months before I ever made dan dan noodles for her—which is inexplicable, really, considering they are my favorite Chinese noodles. “You knew how to make this and you never made it for me?” she asked, incredulous and exasperated, after she took her first bite. I had been struggling to feed her all this time, trying so hard to please her by learning new dishes I thought she might like—Cantonese-style chao mian, glass noodles with shrimp,  Singapore-style...

Spice Shopping in Sichuan

A Spicy Girl Shops for Spices~~ I just returned from a trip to Chengdu (and Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai). I never get enough of Sichuan, which may explain why I always try to bring all its goodies back with me. This is just some of the Sichuan spicy stuff I stuffed in my luggage, bought at Chengdu’s jaw-dropping wholesale spice market, its fascinating supermarkets  and wet markets and a sidewalk artisan food stall with the best sauces on earth (really!): Three kinds of freshly dried Sichuan chili peppers, or la...

Sourcing Zhenjiang Vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)

Zhenjiang Vinegar: Accept No Substitutes~~ If I had to choose just one Chinese ingredient that everyone should have in their pantry (other than Chinese-made soy sauce, of course), it would be Zhenjiang black vinegar. In our household we use as much Chinese black rice vinegar as soy sauce. We even use as much Zhenjiang vinegar as chili sauces and oils, which is saying something. In fact, the three mixed together are our go-to dipping sauce for dumplings. And many Chinese use just black vinegar as their dipping sauce of choice....

Sourcing Yibin Suimi Yacai (Preserved Mustard Greens)

Yibin Yacai: The Queen of Sichuan Pickles~~ Yacai is another one of those only-in-Sichuan ingredients. All of China loves a preserved vegetable, but this particular example—fermented mustard green stems—is made only in Yibin, a county in southern Sichuan Province. Yibin yacai is used most famously in dan dan noodles and gan bian si ji dou (dry-fried green beans), where it is absolutely indispensable. But it also provides a deep veggie essence to all kinds of sauces and dishes in Sichuan cooking. I have never made it to Yibin, but my...

The Secret Chinese Menu, Now in Full View

I recently wrote a piece for my local daily, The Tennessean, about a new trend I’ve noticed—even in Nashville—of Chinese restaurants making the “secret menu” available to us all. No more withholding the real Chinese food from us non-Asians! Here’s an excerpt: I read one of those perennial Chinese food stories recently. The one where the guy discovers that his favorite Chinese restaurant has one menu for him, a white guy, and another, secret menu for Asians that has all the good stuff on it. I don’t doubt that’s still...

Sourcing Tian Mian Jiang (Sweet Wheat Paste)

Tian Mian Jiang, or the Glory of Sichuan’s Fermented Sauces~~ This unassuming little ingredient is way more powerful than it lets on. Called sweet wheat paste or sweet soybean paste, it is yet another member of the family of fantastically tasty and useful Asian bean sauces. Don’t even get me started on the glory of fermented bean pastes…other than to say my pantry and fridge include four kinds of Chinese bean sauces (sweet bean, chili bean, yellow bean and hoisin) as well as two kinds of Korean and two kinds of...

Sourcing Wei Jing (MSG)

MSG: Umami by a Different Name~~ Many of the recipes in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English call for monosodium glutamate, or wei jing as the Chinese call it and “gourmet powder” as they translate it. Of course they do. The book was written in China, where MSG is as widely added to food as it is widely present naturally. Leave it out if you like, but when these recipes call for it, I usually use it, because I have tasted how a tiny amount dials up the flavor tremendously. Plus,...

Lotus Culinary Travel Hosts Andrew Zimmern for ‘Bizarre Foods’ Chengdu

Simply put, the food in Chengdu belongs at the top of the culinary charts, rivaling the world’s greatest food capitals. Move over Paris and New York, Chengdu has arrived! So says Andrew Zimmern in his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods; the Chengdu episode debuted in the States in spring 2011 and has since aired (and re-aired) in more than 70 countries. Even globetrotting experts such as Andrew need in-the-know locals to help them find the best a place has to offer, and Lotus Culinary Travel was thrilled to host him, as...