Mala - My drug of Choice
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.