August 2017: Spice Report From Our Month in Sichuan

August 05, 2017

August 2017: Spice Report From Our Month in Sichuan

Spice Report From Our Month in Sichuan


Hello, Friends of The Mala Market!

It's been quite a month (or two) since our last update. So where to start?

Well, first of all by thanking you for your patience while we traveled to Sichuan for the month of June. When we left, we had no way of knowing that we would be featured in a story on Bon Appetit called "These 10 Great Online Specialty Food Stores Have Everything." We were super grateful for the exposure, but it was a dilemma, since we weren't at home to accept and ship the orders. And we also sold out of several products. We are eternally grateful to those of you who ordered anyway and waited several weeks for your order to ship. That's some serious commitment to Sichuan food and quality ingredients! 

Everything is now back in stock, and there are a couple new items as well (see below), as well as others on the way in the coming months. 

In the end we think it was worth it, because not only did we come back from Chengdu and Chongqing with a million recipe ideas for The Mala Project, but we also learned even more about Sichuan products, how they are grown and produced, and how to source the very best. After a decade of travel to Sichuan, I finally made it to the Sichuan pepper farms in their ancestral home of Hanyuan County, and followed the trail of the little numbing spice from there to processors and spice markets to better understand every step of where our Sichuan pepper comes from. 

We've included some highlights of our trip below and hope to share many more in the coming months, both here and on the blog, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

As always, thank you for reading and shopping!
Taylor & Fong Chong

Hanyuan Sichuan pepper farm with The Mala Project

Huajiao Heaven

Fong Chong and I, along with husband/dad Craig, Chengdu food guide and friend Jordan Porter and his associate Claudia, made the four-hour trip from Chengdu to Qingxi village in the mountains of Hanyuan County, the home of China's most renowned Sichuan pepper. It was at least a month before harvest, but the huajiao was already red (see close-up above) and releasing some very potent numbing oil when squeezed or bitten. (Our mouths were buzzing for hours, but we kept sampling anyway.) There are so many stories here, and—wearing my journalist hat—I'm writing at length about Qingxi pepper and other huajiao species from around the country for publication soon, as well as working on bringing in the 2017 new crop. 
Sichuan pepper factory by The Mala Market

Hand-Picked and -Processed

On this visit, we heard from farmers how Sichuan peppercorns are hand-picked and saw for ourselves on a factory visit how they are hand-sorted. One. By. One. Premium Sichuan pepper like ours will be mostly open seed pods and will have very few seeds and stray twigs—and these ladies are making sure of that. 
Chilies at the Chengdu wholesale spice market by The Mala Market

So Many Chilies!

FC and I also paid a return visit to Wukuaishi, the Chengdu wholesale spice market, which features miles of chili peppers, chili flakes, Sichuan pepper and other spices. Though this market is for local businesses and not for consumers or export, if you're nice the vendors might sell you as little as a kilo of the ones that really entice you. Our chilies at The Mala Market go direct from the farmers to our supplier's processing and packaging facility to ensure cleanliness and freshness. 
Spices at the Chengdu wholesale spice market by The Mala Market

Other Sichuan Spices

While Sichuan pepper and chili peppers are the star spices of Sichuan, there are many others that give it depth and intrigue, whether they are used in braises, soups, hot pots, dry pots or chili oil. We already carry Chinese cassia, or cinnamon (front and center), and star anise (back left). And we've also just added cao guo (front left), which is a type of black cardamom. Very different from green cardamom, it is smoked during the drying process and has an incredible smoky layer on top of the sweet cardamom flavor. It makes everything more interesting.
Chongqing chicken by The Mala Project

In case you missed it

You can put those Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers to very effective use with this recipe for Chongqing Chicken Like It's Made in Chongqing. I recreated a dish we had in Chongqing that featured zha cai (mustard pickle) and crispy bits of chicken skin along with the chicken. Decadent and delicious. This post is also a mini-review of our self-styled Chengdu food tour and goes into detail about the differences between eating in Sichuan and eating Sichuan in the U.S.—of which this dish is a perfect example. 

Wontons in red oil by The Mala Market

Want a shortcut to this?

These are chao shou (wontons) in red oil as served in Chengdu recently. If you frequent Sichuan restaurants anywhere, they're probably a favorite of yours too. Learn to make your own sweet-hot sauce for them here. (Hint: It includes spiced dark soy sauce.) Or opt for a shortcut and use the readymade red-oil sauce we are offering in limited quantities at The Mala Market. Many "famous brand" restaurants in Chengdu are getting into the condiment business, and this dumpling oil is made by none other than Chen Mapo Doufu restaurants. True, they're famous for their mapo doufu, not their red-oil dumplings, but they've made all the Sichuan classics for decades now, so they know what they're doing. 

The Godmother Collection (Lao Gan Ma Chili Oils)
The Godmother Collection (Lao Gan Ma Chili Oils)
Speaking of eating straight from the jar, The Godmother Collection returns! The bottled version of the Lao Gan Ma xiang la cai pickle has not been available for some time, but we've recently laid our hands on small foil packets (three to an order) of that spicy cabbage-and-chili pickle.