Citizens, the clean mountain rivers of Sichuan province are teeming with crawfish – for those who thought these were simply a Cajun or Scandinavian treat, you may now consider yourselves educated!
While Louisiana farms the vast majority of crawfish eaten in the world, Asia has its own crawfish species, and Sichuan has many rivers and waterways, so it should come us no surprise that they eat them too.
They are called xiao longxia, little lobsters, in Chinese. (the direct translation of longxia is dragon shrimp, so they are little dragon shrimp).
The Sichuan version isn’t boiled however – it’s stir-fried with typical Chinese seasonings and enough chili pepper to give even the most dedicated spicehound pause! “Ma la” means “numbing and spicy” – the numbing comes from a large amount of Sichuan peppercorns.
‘Ma la’ comes from two Chinese characters meaning, respectively, ‘numbing’ 麻 and ‘spicy (hot)’ 辣 and describes the sensation in the mouth the dish creates.
Sichuan cuisine is revered worldwide for its precise, powerful blending of Sichuan pepper with chillis and other spices to create a sensation which, while not for the faint-hearted, is appreciated by diners for being exhilarating rather than uncomfortable. Sichuan pepper is not in itself hot, but causes a tingling sensation in the lips and mouth which, when combined with the heat of chilli, becomes ma la.
The precise origins of ma la sauce are unclear, but many sources attribute its development to night markets in Chongqing that targeted pier workers in the 19th to 20th century.
The strong flavor and thick layer of oil helps preserve foods and removes the unpopular smells of the cheap foods, such as solidified blood, beef stomach and kidney, which were usually served to pier workers.
The sauce is used in a variety of ways, from stir-fry, stews, and soup, to being used in hot pot or as a dipping sauce and it is of course very popular with crawfish. In the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces mala powder (麻辣粉; pinyin: málàfĕn) is used on snacks and street foods, such as stinky tofu, fried potatoes, and barbecued meat and vegetables.
The sauce is made primarily of dried chili peppers, chili powder, douban paste, Sichuan peppercorns, clove, garlic, star anise, black cardamom, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, salt and sugar.
These ingredients are simmered with beef tallow and vegetable oil for many hours, and packed into a jar. Other herbs and spices, such as sand ginger, Angelica dahurica and poppy seeds, can be added to create a unique flavor.
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