Mouth-numbing Mala: Sichuan peppercorns in the spotlight as UK restaurants explore tongue-tingling spice sensations

With spicy flavour trends diversifying, Egg Soldiers gets to grips with Mala, the electrifying spice blend that's starting to make a name for itself well beyond its traditional Sichuan cuisine origins
A mala-spiced chicken burger from Preston's Burgers, USA
Spicy flavour trends have been on the rise in the UK for a good many years now, with consumers across generations craving bold, globally-inspired taste experiences that deliver memorable levels of flavourful heat.

We all remember when sriracha took the UK market by storm going on ten years ago, paving the way for a wave of spicy condiments, sauces, and marinades from across the world to capture the imagination of heat-hunting diners, with the Korean chilli paste, gochujang, one of the more recent spicy success stories in UK hospitality.

New flavour 'adventures' remain high on the consumer agenda, particularly among younger generations, with booming UK street food trends and the ever-widening array of authentic options now finding real success up and down the country testament to the broadening of UK palates.

So, the question: what's the next big thing in spicy flavours for UK foodservice? Well, as hands-on food experts in both retail and hospitality, Insights Lab by Egg Soldiers has its finger firmly on the pulse of UK food trends, with our broadening team of expert strategists and analysts identifying a potential opportunity with Mala - a spicy, flavourful seasoning and a signature flavour of Chinese Sichuan cuisine.

Mala, which comes from a combination of two Chinese characters - "numbing" (麻) and "spicy" (辣) - is driven by a combination of Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies, the former delivering an unusual numbing feeling in the mouth.

Powerful, distinctive, and comfortably ticking the 'flavour adventure' box; Mala is traditionally made into a sauce for a range of dishes, both in Sichuan and in many other parts of China (think Dandan noodles and Mala hot pots).

However, with the broader reaches of authentic Asian flavours and styles increasingly finding favour in the UK mainstream, Mala is starting to establish itself beyond its traditional Sichuan cuisine origins, with ever-rising UK consumer demand for globally-inspired spice elements driving innovators to explore new dish applications for the uniquely tongue-tingling, umami-boosting flavour bomb.
The Magic of Mala Spice Mix
As mentioned, the mouth-numbing magic of Mala comes from Sichuan peppercorns, a spice indigenous to China and the driving force behind Sichuan cuisine. Despite the name, these "peppercorns" are actually dried berry husks from prickly ash shrubs which, when eaten, produce a sensation called paraesthesia, in which the lips and tongue feel as though they're vibrating and go slightly numb.

The presence of hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, a chemical that binds to touch receptors on the tongue, mouth, and skin, is responsible for this effect, deceiving cells into believing they've been vibrating at a high frequency.

It's worth pointing out that, while they certainly deliver an electric spice sensation; Sichuan peppercorns are not actually that spicy in terms of the Scoville scale, coming in at around the same level as tabasco and cayenne pepper, with Mala's spiciness really driven by varying amounts of dried chilli flakes.

Flavour-wise, Sichuan peppercorns deliver fragrant, floral, and slightly citrus/sweet notes, balancing beautifully in a Mala mix with the spicy kick of the dried chilli, often brought together by ranging spices and herbs, which can include fennel, cumin and coriander. It's a complex, umami-boosting blend.

So why exactly are we highlighting Sichuan peppercorn-driven Mala? Even proclaiming it as one of the UK Hospitality Food & Drink Trends To Watch in 2023/24?

Well, Mala has enjoyed something of a vigorous test run over the past few years, but not in its standard form. We're talking about chilli crisp oil - a cult obsession among foodies and one of the big lockdown food trend winners.

A common ingredient in chilli crisp oil? Sichuan peppercorns. And what have consumers been putting chilli crisp oil on? Absolutely everything.
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Lao Gan Ma, Fly By Jing, and the versatility of numbing spice
Chinese condiment brand Lao Gan Ma is perhaps the most well-known of the chilli crisp oil producers and is often credited with popularising the concept in the Western world. Its hero product, Spicy Chilli Crisp, contains 'prickly ash powder' - namely a powdered version of the shrub that produces Sichuan peppercorns (delivering that same numbing sensation).

Crunchy, hot and packed with umami; Lao Gan Ma paved the way for a number of artisan brands to emerge over the past few years, tapping rising interest from consumers in complex, spicy flavour experiences, with a touch of adventure.

The chilli crisp oil craze hit real heights at the tail end of the last decade, and while not all iterations contained the mouth-numbing qualities of Sichuan peppercorns, arguably the standout entry into the category was US-based Fly By Jing and its "hot, spicy, crispy, numbing and deliciously savory", Sichuan Chili Crisp.

After launching in 2018 (following a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign), Fly By Jing's Sichuan Chili Crisp skyrocketed in popularity across the US, becoming a pantry staple for lockdown home cooks. Applications were limitless as consumers became hooked on the magic of Mala, with popcorn, fried chicken, salads, fried eggs, and even vanilla ice cream eagerly doused with the tongue-tingling, crunchy hot sauce.

And, in the summer of last year, Shake Shake teamed up with Fly By Jing to launch the UK-exclusive Chili Crisp menu, marking the latter's UK market entry. The menu was led by the Chili Crisp Chicken, a chicken burger glazed with Fly By Jing's Sichuan Chilli Crisp, with Chili Crisp Chicken Bites with spring onion mayo, and Chili Crisp Cheese Fries topped with Shack cheese sauce and spicy Sichuan Chili Crisp also part of the lineup.

Then there's Fly by Jing's mala spice mix, which is also among its most popular products, with the "warm, versatile, numbing' seasoning made with 11 potent herbs and spices, including Erjingtiao chilli and the prized “Tribute” Sichuan pepper.

Now, in 2023, mala flavour innovation is beginning to emerge in both the UK and US, with Sichuan peppercorns' uniquely tongue-tingling qualities opening up new avenues for creative product development.
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Mala flavour: Five innovative examples

Mala Oyster Mushrooms,
Facing Heaven, UK

Facing Heaven is a vegan Sichuanese food concept from LA chef Julian Denis, with dishes driven by mouth-numbing Mala spice found across the menu, such as Chicken Fried Oyster Mushrooms (pictured) with mala powder, served with ranch dipping sauce.

It also currently offers two 'spicy & numbing' sandwiches, namely a crispy alt-chicken option with fermented bean curd ranch and pickles, housed in a potato bun; and a crispy mushroom option.

Lacewing, Tilden, US

Non-alcoholic pre-mixed cocktail brand Tilden's recently-launched second expression, Lacewing, is driven by an innovative riff on the Mala spice concept.

The "fresh, herbaceous" Lacewing is built with cucumber, basil, and lychee flavours on a juniper berry base, with Sichuan peppercorn extract delivering "a light, cooling mouthfeel", enhanced by cayenne pepper (instead of the typical dried chillies) to deliver "a light bite at the finish".

Sichuan Classic Sando, Sichuan Fry, UK

Specialising in fried chicken coated with 'numbing and spicy sauces and oils', Sichuan Fry is the recently-launched sister brand to Dumpling Shack in the UK capital.

Its wildly-popular Sichuan Classic sando (pictured) is made up of a crispy chicken thigh, Sichuan sauce, mala honey sauce, smacked pickles and slaw.

It also offers spicy wings with a range of sauces, including mala honey and mala ketchup.

Numbing Chips, Harcourt, UK

Launched at the end of January 2023, Harcourt is a Manchester-based, Hong Kong-inspired gastropub concept specialising in local craft beer and HK-style small plates.

Already making a name for itself with its authentic Hong Kong-style French Toast, Harcourt is testing the waters with a range of options featuring numbing Mala spice, with its Numbing Chips (川辣薯條 - pictured) driven by a secret blend of chilli flavours, delivering "a truly unique sensory experience".

Apple Sake Mala Margarita, Josh Reisner, US

Disruptive culinary influencer and former Junior Masterchef contestant Josh Reisner regularly uses Mala spice in his dish and drink development, with recent examples including a mapo tofu-inspired ramen with mala mapo chicken gravy; lobster bao buns with a mala beurre noisette; and his Apple Sake Mala Margarita (pictured).

The latter comprises Red Jacket apple cider, Shirayuki Snow sake, sweet plum syrup and palm sugar, served in a glass boasting a sour apple chamoy rim with Mala spice.

Image: @chefjoshr
Action points for UK brands
  • Get spice wise
    As pointed out, the spicy heat associated with Mala is primarily delivered by dried chilli flakes, rather than the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, with traditional Mala sauces and seasonings often the result of a specific (sometimes secret) recipe.

    This presents an opportunity for chefs and innovators to develop specific levels of spice for dishes and products, tailored to target audiences, by harnessing a broader range of dried chillies and spices.
  • Think outside the pot
    The tongue-tingling flavour profile of Mala is moving into new territories, with innovators exploring a widening array of dish and drink applications.

    Another potential avenue for Mala innovation is the humble pizza, with the sizzling spice of Mala a bold addition to a meat-centric option.

    For a health-forward dish, consider a Sichuan-spiced grilled salmon fillet, served with spicy pickled radish for a crunchy, tangy textural element.
  • Halloween heat
    High-sensory food and drink options come into their own around Halloween, with Mala's mouth-numbing qualities ideal for injecting memorable flair into limited-edition launches.

    From savoury snacks and baked goods to creative cocktails and seasonal side dishes; Mala spice can be used to really send shockwaves across the tongue.

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