It was an impish concoction, and things were bound to get fervid once hydroxy-alpha-sanshool and capsaicin hooked up.
Sanshool, to her friends, is the bio-active component that makes up about 3% of a Sichuan pepper, or huājiāo, the outer pod of a tiny innocent-looking fruit endemic to west China. Yet she is the one guilty of delivering the pepper’s numbing, pins-and-needles sensation that stuns the uninitiated diner and enjoys baffling the nervous system. It’s like putting your tongue on a nine-volt battery, according to one scientific researcher, and Sichuan cooks have been having fun lobbing this culinary missile into dishes for centuries.
Then capsaicin enters the cauldron in the 15th century, as traders introduced Asia to the red chili pepper – capsicum annum – one of the Americas first cultivated crops, domesticated in places like Ecuador more than 6,000 years ago. Capsaicin – he’s chili’s active component and its defence mechanism against troublesome herbivores and fungi – is the endorphin-releasing demon that delivers a chili junkie’s fix.
Their relationship was consummated and the offspring was málà – literally numbing and spicy – the potentially stupefying sensation that defines much of Sichuan cuisine. For centuries it has become a ritual for locals and visitors alike to throw themselves, sweating and sniffling, at the merciless altar of málà.
In honour of the fiery alliance, this publication has been dubbed MaLa – The Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal.
The title is a bow to the creativity, passion and originality that is málà. It is a nod to its challenging stance and taunting approach to the bland and the banal. And it’s a doffing of the cap to its East and West collusion.
MaLa, the publication, is driven by the members of the Chengdu Bookworm Writing Group and exists to promote new writers and new English-language writing in China and beyond. The aim is to regularly publish poetry, short fiction, literary non-fiction and work in translation – supported by graphic art and photography – that is alive, stimulates, explores.
Aside from the writing group pieces we present work from several critically acclaimed, award-winning authors who have given talks in The Bookworm or who have strong connections with our venues in Chengdu, Beijing or Suzhou.
We’ve piled in plenty of sanshool and capsaicin. We hope you like it.