Food trends evolve as fast as fashion trends, and the spicy, mouth-numbing Sichuan mala sauce is the latest addition to a growing list of popular food items to try out.
Technomic, a consultancy studying food trends, found that this Chinese sauce is the next big thing where spicy condiments are concerned, as it moves from being a restaurant favourite to the home kitchen.
But first let’s find out what is in this sauce. From the sounds of it, the fact that it has chilli may turn some people off though others who are hooked on the chilli’s “feel good” factor may be more adventurous to give it a go. Endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers, are released when you eat chillis, leading to a sense of “high” as the body defends itself against the chilli’s heat.
Hang on, what we do know is that the main ingredient in a Sichuan mala sauce is not chilli, but the Sichuan peppercorn. Forming the crux of the Sichuan mala sauce, this type of peppercorn is popularly used in the Sichuan and Chongqing provinces. Historically, Sichuan peppercorns and ginger were two main ingredients used to add heat to dishes, much needed during cold wintry months. But what’s interesting is that the Sichuan peppercorn isn’t really a pepper at all. It has no relation to piper nigrum or black pepper or neither is it related to chilli peppers or genus Capsicum, but instead has links to the citrus and rue family. Sichuan peppercorns are part of a prickly ash shrub species found mainly in Taiwan and China, as well as parts of the Himalayan region. You can also find this plant in Indonesia or Thailand.
Although known as a shrub, the Sichuan peppercorn plant can grow into a five metre high graceful, spreading but gnarly tree. The plant is both an edible and ornamental plant, offering the keen gardener or producer lush blooms in late spring and early summer.
Flowers will turn into berries, forming the peppercorns that in turn bright red in autumn. You can grow these plants in flower beds or give them ample room in large containers. Use well-drained soil and rich organic matter found in compost for fertiliser. Sun and water is a must. Harvesting is easy, simply place a tarp under the tree and shake the tree until the peppercorns fall onto the cover. Watch out for spiky branches during the harvest.