We all indulge in mala for a variety of motives.
Some relish it due to societal pressure, fearing exclusion if they aren’t seen venturing towards the mala stall during the midday meal break.
Others turn to it as a refuge from the constant chill that grips them, ironically complaining about the frosty office atmosphere as colleagues around them seek solace in reduced layers of clothing.
The majority, though, seek the mala numbness, an intriguing sensation unique to this culinary experience, oblivious to the fact that it numbs the tongue rather than emotional turmoil.
The tingling sensation is somewhat akin to alcohol cleansing your taste buds, followed by a strong wash of Listerine that simultaneously triggers pain and a profound sense of nothingness.
It’s an odd sensation, oddly addictive, similar to alcohol, but saturated with calories instead of chaos.
So, what makes mala numb, and why doesn’t the heat from other types of chilli mimic this distinct sensation?
As your trusted source, we’re going to simplify this mala numbing spice for you so you can enlighten your friends on their traumatized tongues during your next mala gathering.
Before that, let’s delve a bit into mala history.
Mala: Origin and Evolution
Mala is undoubtedly an import from China, gaining popularity through the Chinese community in Singapore. Its origins, though, are a bit more obscure.
While historical documentation is lacking, the belief is that the mala soup was concocted by people who made their living towing boats.
Faced with the harsh, damp and foggy climate, they brewed a soup of herbs, Sichuan pepper and ginger, a concoction that not only alleviated their ailments but also dispelled the dampness.
This intriguing dish quickly garnered a fanbase, and mala soup became a staple in Chinese cuisine.
In Singapore, mala soup had been a familiar sight in hotpot restaurants but remained relatively unnoticed until mala xiang guo managed to climb the food popularity ladder, rivalling bubble tea in fame.
Now, let’s address the meat of this article: why is mala so addictive, and what causes the numbing sensation?
Sichuan Peppercorn: The Mala Numbing Spice
Devoted mala enthusiasts are well aware of this secret ingredient: it’s the Sichuan peppercorn that makes it feel as though a battalion of tiny red ants has invaded your tongue.
But why does this happen?
To understand this, let’s first comprehend how chilli imparts spiciness to your food. The perpetrator here is capsaicin, an irritant that induces a burning sensation in any tissue it comes into contact with.
In simpler terms, if you were to rub chilli on your face, you’d feel the burn, along with the embarrassment of being caught in such a peculiar act.
This burning sensation is our cells responding via a particular receptor. So, chilli would aggravate, say, Receptor A.
Sichuan peppercorn, however, takes a different route.
It does function similarly to chilli, but our cells respond to it via different receptors. These receptors are seemingly more “active,” and the sensation they produce isn’t just a simple “burn.” Instead, they appear to “vibrate” rapidly.
Contrary to chilli, the receptors continue to “vibrate” for a few minutes after the initial “burn,” leading to the peculiar sensation that many detest but still claim to adore.
In essence, while chilli produces a mere “burn,” mala induces a “burn” followed by a persistent vibration due to the different reaction on the tongue.
It’s this unique “vibration” that contributes to the viral status of mala, rather than the burn alone.
So, now that you’re enlightened, are you still craving that mala?