Sichuan mala
Mala sauce refers to a popular Chinese oily spicy and numbing sauce which consists of Sichuanese peppercorn, chili pepper and various spices simmered with oil.

Regarded as a regional dish for Chongqing and Sichuan cuisine, it has become one of the most popular sauces in Chinese cuisine
Chinese cuisine
Chinese cuisine is any of several styles originating in the regions of China, some of which have become highly popular in other parts of the world – from Asia to the Americas, Australia, Western Europe and Southern Africa...

 and spawned many regional variants.


The term málà is a combination of two Chinese character
Chinese character
Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...

s: "numbing" (麻) and "spicy (hot)" (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.

The numbness is caused by Sichuanese peppercorn, which contains 3% hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. The recipe often uses dried bell chili pepper, which is less spicy than the bird's eye chili widely used in Southeast Asian cuisines.


The precise origins of the dish are unclear, but many sources attribute its development to night markets in Chongqing
Chongqing is a major city in Southwest China and one of the five national central cities of China. Administratively, it is one of the PRC's four direct-controlled municipalities , and the only such municipality in inland China.The municipality was created on 14 March 1997, succeeding the...

 that targeted pier workers in the 19th to 20th century. The strong flavour and thick layer of oil helps preserve foods and removes the unpopular smells of the cheap foods, such as solidified blood, beef stomach and kidney, which were usually served to pier workers.

Despite the strong flavour by itself, various dipping sauces are often served to make the texture of cooked meat smooth and oily, and the tastes more complicated. Common sauces include sesame oil with garlic, oyster oil, or doufu ru.

The sauce is used in a variety of ways, from stir-fry, stews, and soup, to being used in hot pot
Hot pot
Hot pot , less commonly Chinese fondue or steamboat, refers to several East Asian varieties of stew, consisting of a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of the dining table. While the hot pot is kept simmering, ingredients are placed into the pot and are cooked at the table...

 or as a dipping sauce. In the Sichuan
' , known formerly in the West by its postal map spellings of Szechwan or Szechuan is a province in Southwest China with its capital in Chengdu...

 and Yunnan
Yunnan is a province of the People's Republic of China, located in the far southwest of the country spanning approximately and with a population of 45.7 million . The capital of the province is Kunming. The province borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.Yunnan is situated in a mountainous area, with...

 provinces mala powder (麻辣粉; pinyin: málàfĕn) is used on snacks and street foods, such as stinky tofu
Stinky tofu
Stinky tofu or chòu dòufu is a form of fermented tofu that has a strong odor. It is a popular snack in East and Southeast Asia, particularly mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and in East Asian enclaves elsewhere where it is usually found homemade, at night markets or roadside stands, or as a...

, fried potatoes, and barbecue
Barbecue or barbeque , used chiefly in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia is a method and apparatus for cooking meat, poultry and occasionally fish with the heat and hot smoke of a fire, smoking wood, or hot coals of...

d meat and vegetables.


The sauce is made primarily of dried chili pepper
Chili pepper
Chili pepper is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. The term in British English and in Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia and other Asian countries is just chilli without pepper.Chili peppers originated in the Americas...

s, chili powder, douban paste
Doubanjiang is a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices. Doubanjiang exists in plain and spicy versions, with the latter containing red chili peppers and called la doubanjiang .It is used particularly in Sichuan cuisine, and in fact, the people...

, Sichuan pepper
Sichuan Pepper
Sichuan pepper is the outer pod of the tiny fruit of a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylum , widely grown and consumed in Asia as a spice. Despite the name, it is not related to black pepper or to chili peppers...

corns, clove
Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae. Cloves are native to the Maluku islands in Indonesia and used as a spice in cuisines all over the world...

, garlic
Allium sativum, commonly known as garlic, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, leek, chive, and rakkyo. Dating back over 6,000 years, garlic is native to central Asia, and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent...

, star anise
Star anise
Illicium verum, commonly called Star anise, star aniseed, or Chinese star anise, is a spice that closely resembles anise in flavor, obtained from the star-shaped pericarp of Illicium verum, a small native evergreen tree of northeast Vietnam and southwest China...

, black cardamom
Black cardamom
Black cardamom, also known as hill cardamom, Bengal cardamom, greater cardamom, Indian cardamom, Nepal cardamom, or winged cardamom, brown cardamom, thảo quả and tsao-ko) comes from either of two species in the family Zingiberaceae...

, fennel
Fennel is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum . It is a member of the family Apiaceae . It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves...

, ginger
Ginger is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale, consumed as a delicacy, medicine, or spice. It lends its name to its genus and family . Other notable members of this plant family are turmeric, cardamom, and galangal....

, cinnamon
Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum that is used in both sweet and savoury foods...

, salt
In chemistry, salts are ionic compounds that result from the neutralization reaction of an acid and a base. They are composed of cations and anions so that the product is electrically neutral...

 and sugar
Sugar is a class of edible crystalline carbohydrates, mainly sucrose, lactose, and fructose, characterized by a sweet flavor.Sucrose in its refined form primarily comes from sugar cane and sugar beet...

. These ingredients are simmered with beef tallow
Tallow is a rendered form of beef or mutton fat, processed from suet. It is solid at room temperature. Unlike suet, tallow can be stored for extended periods without the need for refrigeration to prevent decomposition, provided it is kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation.In industry,...

 and vegetable oil and for many hours, and packed into a jar. Other herbs and spices, such as sand ginger
Kaempferia galanga
Kaempferia galanga, commonly known as kencur, aromatic ginger, sand ginger, cutcherry or resurrection lily, is a monocotyledonous plant in the ginger family. It is found primarily in open areas in Indonesia, southern China, Taiwan, Cambodia and India, but is also widely cultivated throughout...

, Angelica
Angelica is a genus of about 60 species of tall biennial and perennial herbs in the family Apiaceae, native to temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, reaching as far North as Iceland and Lapland...

dahurica and poppy seeds, can be added to create a unique flavour.

Traditionally, a restaurant hired a chef specializing in making this sauce; the recipes were kept secret to the chef himself. Today, prepared mala sauce can easily be found in supermarkets, and chain restaurants often produce their own sauce on a large scale, while many others still blend their own one. Like curry, there is a constant debate about the 'best' recipe and numerous variations are available on the market.

The flavour is spicy, numbing (caused by Sichuanese peppercorn) and salty, mixed with a strong herbal taste which is often described as savory, spicy, complicated and addictive.


  • Mala hot pot (麻辣火鍋)
  • Mala duck neck (麻辣鴨脖子)
  • Mala bunch (麻辣燙): vegetables and meat skewer served in a mala soup
  • Mouth-watering ("drooling") chicken (口水雞): Cold chicken served in mala sauce
  • Couples' lung
    Fuqi Feipian
    Fuqi feipian is a popular Sichuan dish, served cold or at room temperature, which is made of thinly sliced beef and beef offal. Common ingredients in the modern version include beef heart, tongue and tripe, and a generous amount of various spices, including Szechuan peppercorns. True to its...

     (夫妻肺片): beef tendon, tongue, tripe, and sometimes also lung, served with oily mala sauce

Popular culture

The adjective málà is also used in Mandarin slang
Mandarin slang
Mandarin Chinese profanity consists of many slang words and insults involving sex.While many offensive words and expletives involve insulting someone's mother, it is also common to show contempt by scorning another person's ancestors. Other Mandarin insults accuse people of not being human...

 to mean 'sexy', 'wild' much like 'hot' in English. The Mandarin title of the animated series Kim Possible
Kim Possible
Kim Possible is an American animated television series about a teenage crime fighter who has the task of dealing with worldwide, family, and school issues every day. The show is action-oriented, but also has a light-hearted atmosphere and often lampoons the conventions and clichés of the...

is Málà Nǚhái (麻辣女孩; literally 'numbing-hot girl').
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