By John H. Isacs | 2012-12-27 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Ma la hot pot which involves various Sichuan chillies and hot peppers, is an exhilarating culinary experience that uniquely challenges diners' senses.
I first experienced ma la (literally numb and spicy) hot pot about 25 years ago and, like many lovers of this Sichuan treasure, my culinary life was forever changed.
For the uninitiated, it's hard to describe the unique and addictive qualities of this special meal. Much more than a dish, ma la hot pot is an exhilarating communal culinary experience that uniquely challenges your senses.
Ma la hot pot is also a bonding experience and an essential rite of passage for lovers of spicy foods. During my frequent wine travels abroad, the first week away from home I happily savor all the local ingredients and dishes, then sometime during the second week I start craving the flavors of China.
The first night back I rush to a local eatery to experience real Chinese food. A ma la restaurant is often my first stop.
Wine and ma la pairing
The topic of pairing wines with spicy foods always creates controversy. Many food and wine pairing traditions emanate from Western wine connoisseurs who resolutely claim that wine is too delicate for spicy foods. They counsel either beer or tea as more suitable solutions.
I don't buy this thinking for two reasons. First, most Western wine connoisseurs neither know nor like spicy Chinese cooking, regardless of what beverage accompanies the dishes.
Secondly, the predominant influence on food and wine pairing rules were made with traditional French wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy in mind. While these regions make some of the greatest wines in the world, they are not the most flexible in food pairing and certainly not the most appropriate for spicy foods.
Picking beer to accompany a ma la hot pot is an easy yet imperfect compromise as beer, even at its best, is merely a neutral companion to spicy foods, never an embellisher like the appropriate wine.
Pepper corns and chillies
There are many things in a ma la hot pot that make it a challenge for wines, but the two major issues are the Sichuan pepper corns and red chili peppers.
The art of food and wine pairing, among other factors, necessitates a fairly detailed understanding of ingredients. Since Sichuan pepper corns and chili peppers are the greatest challenges to wines, let's take a closer look at these beloved foods.
The Sichuan pepper corn is derived from the zanthoxylum genus and in fact is more closely related to the citrus family than the black or white pepper families. They are an important ingredient in western and northern Chinese cooking.
The Chinese name, hua jiao, literally means flower pepper. Coming from a rather scrubby-looking short tree or bush, the seeds are discarded and the skins or husks are used to create the finished pepper corns. The best pepper corns come from Hanyuan County in Sichuan Province.
The key quality or sensation these peppers impart to foods is a numbing quality on the palate that's been described as a combination of spearmint and Novocain.
Contrary to the popular conception that they dull the flavors of food, in fact, recent studies indicate that they stimulate the receptors on your tongue and sharpen your ability to differentiate the flavors and textures of foods.
In the case of ma la, this means that despite the numb feeling in your mouth the natural flavors of the chilies and ingredients cooked in the pot are accentuated. Your ability to sense fruit, acidity and tannins in wines is also heightened.
My Sichuan friends are nonplussed when told that chili peppers are not an ancient or historic part of Sichuan cuisine. Now synonymous with Sichuan cooking, chili peppers didn't actually arrive in Sichuan until the late 16th century. In 1493 Diego Alvarez Chanca, a doctor on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World, was the first to bring chili peppers to Europe.