Mala - My drug of Choice

NewsChina - - FLAVOR OF THE MONTH - By Mina Yan

My eyes widen. My breath­ing grows heavy. Beads of sweat tin­gle as they roll down my skin. As I gen­tly bite my swollen lower lip, I ad­mit to my­self that it's al­most too much to han­dle. And I haven't even got to the peanut sauce.

I had my first taste of real Sichuan spicy food in the form of a big caul­dron of mala hot pot when I ar­rived in China five years ago. I was in­tim­i­dated. The aroma of chili pep­pers in the air and the boil­ing red broth (as well as the numb­ing pep­per­corn that I ac­ci­den­tally bit into) left a last­ing im­pres­sion. It was a year be­fore I took an­other shot at spicy food.

Back then, one drop of Sichuan hot pot was enough to make me reach for a cold beer. I had what one might, per­haps po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rectly, re­fer to as a “white girl palate”. Grow­ing up in Cal­i­for­nia, the spici­est thing that touched my lips was a packet of Taco Bell Mild Sauce – and even that had me reach­ing for an icy soda. How­ever, af­ter a few years in China eat­ing my way through the dif­fer­ent culi­nary styles of var­i­ous re­gions, I've de­vel­oped a tougher palate and a bor­der­line ad­dic- tion to Sichuan cui­sine. Nowa­days I just can't get enough of spicy food.

What is it about Sichuan cui­sine that makes it im­pos­si­ble to put down? Af­ter an ini­tial shock that sets your lips ablaze, you al­ways find your­self reach­ing back for more; fully aware that each bite will just grow the flame in your mouth.

As it turns out, the rea­son we can't seem to stop crav­ing spicy food is that it's packed with chem­i­cal com­pounds called cap­sai­ci­noids, which chili plants make to pro­tect them­selves from be­ing eaten. Though odor­less and fla­vor­less, th­ese pro­duce a protein that tricks the brain into feel­ing the sen­sa­tion of heat and pain when they meet your tongue. But the brain is no slouch. When it feels this sen­sa­tion, it re­leases en­dor­phins, nature's way of block­ing pain, and dopamine, which trig­gers a wave of plea­sure that washes over the body like af­ter a long work­out or a roller­coaster ride. A per­fect com­bi­na­tion of safety and dan­ger, the shot of en­dor­phins and dopamine makes the fire in your mouth worth­while.

Un­like caf­feine or nico­tine, it's im­pos­si­ble to get ad­dicted to cap­sai­ci­noids. While crav­ing spicy food is nat­u­ral for any­one who's had the plea­sure of try­ing it, an ac­tual de­pen­dency on the sen­sa­tion of eu­pho­ria doesn't ex­ist.

Some eat to live, while oth­ers live to eat. Hail­ing from China's south­west, the Sichuanese are the lat­ter. The cli­mate in Sichuan is hu­mid all year round, which can ag­gra­vate swelling in the joints and make life par­tic­u­larly tough for those with rheuma­toid arthri­tis. Some say that's why the lo­cals de­vel­oped a taste for ex­tremely spicy food, which helps them bat­tle the cli­mate by sweat­ing, and aids di­ges­tion.

Like any taboo sub­stance, you get hooked bit by bit. Five years ago a drop of mild mala hot pot broth had me de­mand­ing a cold re­prieve, but count­less din­ners, mala­tangs, and spicy Sichuan chicken wings later, I hardly even flinch. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Bring it on. The spicier the bet­ter. This vanilla Cal­i­for­nia girl has been fully con­verted to a mala- guz­zling, dopamine-chas­ing Chi­nese lo­cal.

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