BY KERIN MAYNE
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Even if you are unfamiliar with the etymology of the word Mala, the Chinese language, or the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, by the time you’ve heard the word Sichuan you know you’re dealing with a restaurant that specializes in spicy food. For many people, particularly those with small children, this means any interest in eating at Mala Sichuan has left the building. In Mandarin, the word Má means “numbing”, and the word Là means “spicy”. Together they refer to Mala sauce, which is a popular oily, spicy, and numbing sauce consisting of Sichuan peppercorns, chili peppers, cloves, star anise, cardamom, fennel, ginger, and other spices. The numbing comes from the molecule previously mentioned which is found in the Sichuan peppercorns. However, if you don’t eat or enjoy spicy mouth-numbing food, this information may not be of any interest to you. What you may be asking is, “What CAN I eat?”
I have not had a long history with spicy food. As my husband will testify, I used to think Jalapeño Poppers were hot. Over the years I gradually worked my way up to eating (and enjoying) pickled jalapeños and even using fresh ones in my guacamole and pico de gallo. However, if the spice level is more than just a short-term heat, it’s probably not the dish for me. So why would I pick a restaurant that specializes in spicy food? Because my husband enjoys spicy food and there are some great dishes on the menu that are either not spicy/mouth-numbing at all or are mildly so. Although there are quite a few dishes on the menu that are available for those with a more sensitive palate, I decided to order dishes that are available at both locations of Mala Sichuan as their menus are not identical.
The Chinese food that I’m accustomed to eating doesn’t usually involve cold dishes, with the exception of one chicken dish I’m obsessed with…but that’s another feature for another time. In the interest of branching out, my lunch companions and I started with the Chillin’ Cucumber Sticks, referred to as Cucumber Salad at the Montrose location. They didn’t sound particularly remarkable nor did they sound like something you would expect to find in a Chinese restaurant. However, I was hooked with my first bite of the crunchy, garlicky, and cool cucumber sticks. The description on the menu offers Sichuan peppercorn oil as an ingredient, but neither my tongue nor lips detected anything of the sort, and I was not disappointed. This dish would be the perfect “heat break” for anyone wanting to go toe-to-toe with the spiciest or most mouth-tingling dishes on the menu. It would NOT be perfect for anyone on a first, second, or third date or anyone who does not enjoy the taste of garlic.
Arriving on the heels of the cucumber sticks was the House Special Cold Noodle, affectionately called Sichuan Funky Cold Noodles at the Montrose location. Both locations offered a custom made noodle, spiced and chilled in a sweet, tart, and spicy sesame-based vinaigrette. The Montrose location served this dish with a little less heat, while the Bellaire location offered a very mouth-warming experience. Luckily for me, not only did I have the Chillin’ Cucumber Sticks, but the spiciness disappeared after eating a few bites of other dishes.
The next dish to arrive at the table was the Red Oil Dumplings. They’re handmade pork-filled dumplings served in a sauce of red chili oil, garlic, and sweet and spicy soy paste. Despite the dominant presence of the red chili oil and spicy soy paste, I found these dumplings to be very approachable with very little heat. The handmade dumpling wrappers were a little thicker than I usually prefer, but tasty nonetheless.
The first substantially meat-based dish to arrive was the Tea Smoked Duck. The duck had been cut into the perfect sized pieces for either maneuvering with chopsticks or eating with one’s fingers. No sauce, no frills, just duck. Smoked. If you had blindfolded someone and offered that person a bite, they would have sworn the deep smoky flavor came from having spent a few hours in a Big Green Egg. Sichuan peppercorns are present in the recipes I’ve found for duck prepared in this manner, but once again I found no significant sign of their presence. Just great flavor.
The final dish ordered to round out our visit was the Sautéed Shredded Pork in Beijing Bean Sauce, referred to at the Montrose location as Shredded Pork in Three Bean Paste. The flavor profile of this dish was lightly sweet and savory with just enough sauce to faintly color the white rice in our bowls. The shredded raw green onion atop the dish is not only to provide visual contrast, but also to add contrast in flavor and texture. Unlike the other dishes, this one does not traditionally contain Sichuan peppercorns. The mild and approachable flavors in this dish make it one that would be pleasing to both children and adults, alike.
So, the next time your dining companions want to eat spicy Chinese food take them to Mala Sichuan where the menu offers something tasty for everyone. Who knows, maybe you’ll surprise yourself and find a spicy mouth-tingling dish to your liking!
PHOTOGRAPHY: KERIN MAYNE