Mala is a famous Chinese sauce or seasoning made from various herbs and spices grounded and simmered with oil in a pan. Ingredients include Sichuan peppercorns (Hua Jiao), bean paste, chili oil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, fennel, and black cardamom. Deep brown to dark red in color, Mala is mouth-numbing, intense, and aromatic. The name is quite fitting as the Chinese character ma (麻) means “numb” and la (辣) means “spicy.”
Mala originated in Sichuan, a southwestern region in China. It’s speculated that night markets in the 19th century created the sauce for pier workers during the boat industry boom. The sauce lasted well in the damp weather and help decrease the strong smells of ingredients such as liver and kidney.
Over the years, Mala sauce has been adapted into many versions and there is no one single recipe for mala. Traditionally, mala sauce was used in hot pot (mala tang.) However, the sauce can now be enjoyed with stir fry and wet noodles, barbequed meat and vegetable skewers, and various snacks such as popcorn and potato chips.