We are Taylor and Fong Chong, and The Mala Market is where we offer premium and hard-to-find Sichuan specialty ingredients and a curated selection of our favorite Chinese pantry essentials. The Market is an offshoot of our blog, The Mala Project, where we have written about Cooking Sichuan in America, including recipes, restaurant features and travel articles, since 2014. In 2017, the blog became part of the market and was rechristened The Mala Market Blog.
A former (and still occasional) journalist (Wall Street Journal editor; contributor to the New York Times, Slate, Roads & Kingdoms), I started the blog as a challenge to myself to move beyond my usual Chinese recipes and cook my way though my prized collection of Sichuan cookbooks—the rare, the out-of-print, and the printed-only-in-China*—which are full of food the way it's made in Chengdu, my favorite place to eat.
My goal was to adapt the recipes to America while using made-in-Sichuan ingredients, keeping the dishes as authentic as possible. So the blog was an exploration of whether it’s possible for a home cook to do these recipes justice in the U.S. and of how to lay your hands on the right ingredients to do so.
At its heart, the blog also was about building a Chinese/American family. Its purpose was to spur and document my efforts to learn to cook for Fong Chong, whom my husband and I had recently adopted from China at age 11, and help her feel at home in America. Real Chinese food, her greatest comfort and obsession, was the only thing that worked, the more Sichuan málà—numbing and spicy—the better. (Listen to a podcast by Fong Chong and me about her devotion to Chinese food and kicking-and-screaming acclimation to "American" food here.)
A funny thing happened along the way, however, and I increasingly began to use my newfound knowledge and skills to develop my own recipes, attempting to recreate dishes I’ve eaten over the past decade in great Sichuan restaurants in both Chengdu and around the U.S. My biggest obstacle was sourcing the Sichuan specialty ingredients that make the food taste like it does in Sichuan. In particular, it was hard to source the premium Sichuan peppers and chili peppers that provide the cuisine's quintessential mala flavor.
So in 2016, I decided to source the most essential ingredients myself and make them available here. By that time, Chief Taster and Translator Fong Chong was old enough to join me in that effort, and a mother-daughter company was born. We spent the summer of 2017 in Sichuan, researching farmers and suppliers and laying the groundwork to import our own products. (Read about our exploration of the tortured path of Sichuan pepper from Chinese farm to American table that was published here.) We returned in 2018 to source a premium doubanjiang (chili bean paste) in Pixian county and became the exclusive importers of the only handmade, long-aged version commercially available.
I have traveled to Chengdu a dozen times over as many years as a journalist and then an organizer of cooking classes for travelers at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and culinary tours led by native Chengdunese**. Fong Chong spent the first 11 years of her life eating nothing but homemade Chinese food, a tradition she plans to continue. Together it is our mission to provide the inspiration and ingredients that will enable other American home cooks to make real Sichuan food for their family and friends.
As always, we value your feedback and welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. Just click on the little envelope in the icon bar to email us. Or drop us a line at 2812B Vaulx Lane, Nashville, TN 37204.
Thanks for visiting!Taylor & Fong Chong
*Many people have been interested in the Sichuan cookbooks I've learned from, and while that is no longer the focus of the blog, I want to provide the info here:
My major inspiration was Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, a project of the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association that was published in China in 2010. It was never published outside China and is out of print even in China, but can sometimes be found on Chinese websites. It was, I believe, the first Sichuan cookbook written and translated into English by Sichuan chefs and academics. As such, it goes where the others fear to tread, caring not if we can easily access ingredients such as duck jaws, yak paws and water buffalo scalp, and hesitating not to load the occasional recipe with mounds of chili flakes. But that’s what makes it so exciting and so real.
The other two books I drew inspiration from came from the era when Sichuan was romanized as Szechwan and are both out of print. As far as I can tell, The Good Food of Szechwan: Down-to-Earth Chinese Cooking was the first Sichuan cookbook in English. Published in Japan in 1974, it was written by Robert A. Delfs, an American who studied Chinese in Taiwan in the early 1970s. Shortly after that book was published, in 1976 Harper & Row published Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, written by Chiang Jung-feng and John and Ellen Schrecker. The Schreckers also were in Taipai in the early 1970s, where Mrs. Chiang was their cook. The Taiwan focus of these books makes sense in 1970, when many of the best practicing Sichuan chefs lived in Taiwan, having fled mainland China with the Nationalists after the Communist takeover.
That was about it for Sichuan cookbooks until 2001, when Fuchsia Dunlop’s superlative Land of Plenty was published. It was the first English-language Sichuan cookbook based on research done in Sichuan itself, where Dunlop, a Brit, studied at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the 1990s.
**I no longer organize cooking classes or culinary tours in Sichuan, but I have friends and former colleagues who do. If you're heading to Chengdu, give them a shout:
Jordan Porter's Chengdu Food Tours offers culinary tours and eating adventures of all kinds in Sichuan. His knowledge of local food artisans and restaurants—as well as Sichuan dialect—is second to none.
Sichuan native Tom He is a lecturer at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and can organize (and translate) private cooking classes at the esteemed university. Though not inexpensive, they are enjoyable and enlightening for serious home cooks. Tom is also a licensed tour guide with a deep knowledge of Sichuan history and culture. Contact him at tomhe1975 (at) aliyun.com.