Asian cooking has lots of flavor combinations. Japanese like sweet, salty, and umami in all foods, with some foods having sour flavor too. Southeast Asians like spiciness as well as sweet, salty, and sour. Sichuanese add one more unique flavor called ma, which is usually combined with the heat of chilies, la.
WHAT IS LA?
No, I’m not talking about Los Angeles… La（辣 – la – lah- “spicy”）is just a Chinese adjective meaning “spicy”. When you eat food with chilies, it is la. You should understand what la is now. Just about every cuisine has some spicy dishes!
In Sichuanese cuisine, la comes from Pixian douban, red chili oil, dry red chilies, ground red chilies, pickled red or green chilies, and fresh red or green chilies.
WHAT IS MA?
Depending on the tone you say it in, ma means either “mother”, “numb”, “horse”, or the verb “to scold”.（In order: 妈、麻、马、骂）The second ma（麻 – ma – mah – “numb”) means “numb” and also refers to a unique Sichuanese flavor. For the correct tone, say it like asking a question. Ma is the flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. If you eat too much ma, your mouth, tongue, and lips may feel a little bit numb. The flavor of Sichuan peppercorns cannot really be described in words, so try a Sichuanese dish to taste it!
In Sichuanese cuisine, ma comes from Sichuan peppercorns (whole or ground) and Sichuan peppercorn oil.
Many dishes are mala（麻辣 – ma la – mah lah – “spicy numb”). Spiciness from chilies is paired with ma from Sichuan peppercorns. These two flavors go very well with each other! However, this creates some confusion…
Many Americans think Sichuan peppercorns are spicy, and ma is the same as la, or just a strong form of la. This is not true at all. Sichuan peppercorns are neither peppers nor chilies, and have no piperine or capsicain.
OK! Now you know what is ma and what is la and what is the difference! To taste these delicious flavors, try making mapo tofu. Enjoy!