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Can't seem to find authentic Sichuan in NYC - Where's the ma 麻???

Hey Everyone. I spent a year in China, a month of which was in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. As expected, I became addicted to the "ma" (tingling, soapy-numbing) in the food.

However, I have been searching for ma ever since I got back and haven't found it. I tried a few places in Brooklyn and one place in Chinatown (never been to any of the Grand Sichuans, though). Now I live in Astoria, and I just got back from Flushing. Long story short, I got the twice cooked pork at Spicy & Tasty, then went over to Little Pepper. Nothing. At Little Pepper, I even spoke to the owner - in Chinese - and explained that I loved BOTH hot and numbing food, and could she please recommend something. She pointed to a lamb dish, and I said fine.

What the heck's going on? In Shanghai, not to mention Chengdu, every time I ordered Sichuanese cuisine I was smacked in the face with the ma. Around here, it seems lost. The flavors are fine, the heat is fine, but...

Can anyone empathize? Am I just unlucky? Are my standards too unreasonable? I've seen the huajiao peppercorns sold around here, so I know they're around.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Thanks...

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Little Pepper
133-43 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY 11354

Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince St, Queens, NY 11354

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  1. Twice cooked pork doesn't have Sichuan peppercorns which cause the numbing-tingly sensation. I'm confused as to why you ordered it if that's what you wanted.

    Here's a review of Spicy & Tasty that indicates which dishes use the Sichuan peppercorns (a lot of them don't):
    http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2010/1...

    Have you tried Chengdu Heaven?
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/451804
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/523442

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    Spicy & Tasty
    39-07 Prince St, Queens, NY 11354

    5 Replies
    1. re: kathryn

      Well, I'm not familiar enough with the inner machinations of creating Sichuan cuisine to know which exact dishes contain the peppercorns and which do not. It just seemed that, in the past, whenever I ordered something Sichuanese, there they were. I've even tried cooking with huajiao peppers at home, but after many experiments (is ma fat soluble or water soluble?), I couldn't manage to extract the sensation from the peppercorns.

      Thanks so much for the info. I meant to stop by Chengdu Heaven tonight, but after my little culinary tour (I also popped into Nanxiang Xiaolongbao to see if the xiaolongbao were like the ones in Shanghai - they were delicious!), my stomach convinced me otherwise. Definitely next time.

      1. re: bht2109

        If you're curious about recreating the dishes you loved, pick up a copy of Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty! She does a great job describing things like "The 23 Flavors of Sichuan" and "The 56 Cooking Methods of Sichuan," which explain the cuisine. BTW, in traditional Sichuan cooking, many dishes begin with heating oil, then dumping a bunch of peppercorns in to flavor the oil, then discarding them.

        Please report back if you get to Chengdu Heaven!

        1. re: kathryn

          Wow, I would LOVE to be able to cook my own Sichuanese at home. Thanks so much for the book tip!

          I'll check back in on this thread once I head over to Chengdu Tianfu. I've heard that their lamb is to die for, and given that lamb is my absolute favorite red meat, my journey there will surely be soon.

          谢谢!

          1. re: kathryn

            That's right! Also the Sichuan Peppercorns can be dry roasted in a pan and then pulverized in a food processor.

            1. re: kathryn

              Yeah, all of Fuschia's books are great. They really helped me pick up my game in home cooking Sichuan and regional Chinese foods.

        2. There is a Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing and one in Manhattan in the '30's just east of Broadway which should suit you.

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          Szechuan Gourmet
          135-15 37th Ave, Queens, NY 11354

          1. In the Golden mall, there is a place called Ma's Hot & Numbing. Not sure of the booth number but google it and it will pop up on some blog w/a map and menu.

            1 Reply
            1. There is ma la huo guo at I-baidu. At Spicy Tasty simply request they increase the ma la. The dishes I have tried at Little Red Pepper have more capsaicin than ma la and I can sympathize because I've requested heavy ma la at LRP and been disappointed by the lack of floral szechuan peppercorn. Tung Shing House has a chef that makes excellent use of ma la, some dishes have fresh szechuan pepper (very fragrant).

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              Tung Shing House
              97-45 Queens Blvd, Queens, NY 11374

              2 Replies
              1. re: Pookipichu

                Tung Shing House still holding it down??? No way. I love hearing that.

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                Tung Shing House
                97-45 Queens Blvd, Queens, NY 11374

                1. re: Pookipichu

                  Where and when did this idea that "ma la" refers to the flavor of 花椒 (the so-called Sichuan peppercorn) begin to arise? I first encountered it in Todd Kliman's article about Peter Chang, but it seems to be more commonplace than that.

                  If you look up the words in question, you'll discover that 辣 (la) is the flavor produced most commonly by capsaicin--what Americans call hot--and in fact hot peppers are often referred to as 辣椒 (la jiao.) 花椒 does not produce that sensation--it's never 'la' any more than sugar is sour.

                  If you want the numbing produced by huajiao, namely 麻, you may get further if you ask for your food 加 麻 (jia ma for extra ma) rather than 麻辣 which is often generically interpreted as "spicy".

                2. Both Udu Hotpot in Flushing and Grand Sichuan House in Bay Ridge have dishes with which the ma la cup floweth over.

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                  Grand Sichuan House
                  8701 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11209

                  Udu Cafe
                  37-04 Prince St, Queens, NY 11354

                  1. Jut trying to understand what kind of a lamb dish that was at The Little Pepper. I suspect that might have been the "Paper Lamb": it's definitely there on the wall and the chef himself usually recommends it, and it does contain Sichuan peppercorns.

                    Some dishes at ChengDu TianFu are hotter (辣) but not necessarily spicier; all in all both feel quite authentic. Also, the Sichuan chilly (天靚) peppers are not really that hot: they just look dangerous.

                    If you head to CDTF don't miss the hotpot there (pun not intended).

                    -----
                    Little Pepper
                    133-43 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY 11354

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: diprey11

                      Well done, people! Thank you so much for all of your suggestions.

                      Chandavkl, thanks for the map. Very handy!

                      Pookipichu, I really liked S&P, as well as Little Pepper, so I'm going to follow your advice and simply ask them to up the ma (or request that they recommend dishes) next time.

                      Man, I haven't had hotpot since I was in China (this was for the 07-08 school year, teaching English). Thanks for the tips, chompchomp. Do they do hotpot with both types of broth at the same time? And are the dipping items featured in a buffet, or from the menu? I ate so much hotpot while I was there, so I saw all kinds of orientations, but I definitely like the buffet-style approach.

                      diprey11, I honestly don't know what it was. The owner pointed at the menu, I saw the character for lamb 羊, and I was too tired, full, and frustrated at that point to try and translate the rest of the dish (plus my Chinese isn't stellar to begin with. Still learning...). I could sense a TINY bit of ma there, but nothing even close to a lasting sensation.

                      Probably going to head over to Chengdu Heaven later this afternoon (Sat, Nov 13). Anyone wanna join me?

                      1. re: bht2109

                        At Udu, you have your choice of several different kinds of broth, and just like in Sichuan, you can get 2 types for one burner. The sichuan peppercorn broth is deffffinitely ma la. For the meats, vegetables, tofu etc, that you put in the broth, you check off what you like on a paper menu. For the dipping sauces (and rice) there is a buffet, and you can make what you like.

                        Udu is clean and nice, and the service does not speak a lot of English. It is quite reasonable, and I seem to remember that they have a deal whereby if you go with a group, you can get all-you-can-eat hotpot and all-you-can-drink-beer for $25/person. Steal!

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                        Udu Cafe
                        37-04 Prince St, Queens, NY 11354

                        1. re: bht2109

                          They do have a two-sided hotpot at 小辣椒 , but I am not sure about 成都天府 : never ordered it there, altough I enjoy their Sichuan spicy hotpot and I think it is the best in the area. I don't know if all ingredients are listed, I just order from the memory.

                          If you want to order in English at 小辣椒, I'd suggest you ask the waiter (not the hostess: her English is not very good), usually a teenage guy, to assist you. You may ask him for the paper lamb from the wall ($11.95 iirc), and tell him you want it with extra 花椒, just to be doubly sure. I love Chuan food, and they have never disappointed. Good luck!

                      2. I lived in Shanghai for a few months and ate a lot of Sichuan cai. I was not impressed by Little Pepper's hot pot. It was very under whelming.

                        Given that, I think the rest of the people here have it covered. The Ma Po Dou Fu at Chengdu Tianfu is very satisfying.

                        -----
                        Little Pepper
                        133-43 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY 11354

                        1. wa jeal on 2nd ave in the low 80's, in manhattan

                          20 Replies
                          1. re: thew

                            UPDATE:

                            Ok. I give up. I went into Flushing again this afternoon on my Eternal Quest for Ma 麻, and I failed yet again.

                            First stop: Corner 28. I know it's not Sichuanese, but I heard so much about their duck buns, so I had to try them. As expected they were absurdly delicious, though next time I might ask them to go easy on the sauce so that the duck comes through a bit more. By the way, for those of you who like to practice your language skills and order in Chinese, they simply refer to them as "Beijing duck" (běijīng yā, 北京鴨). At least, that's what they told me when I asked...

                            Next, off to the Golden Market. The famed lamb burger (羊肉夾饃, yángròu jiāmó) at Xi'an Mingchi was stellar - again, as expected. A pretty pedestrian eating tour of Flushing so far, you say? Fine...

                            Next I hit Chengdu Tianfu in search the elusive Ma. Let me say right off the bat that I don't really like instructing restauramt owners as to my individual tastes. I know many people say that if I want Ma, I should simply ask for it (or more of it). I don't know why, but this makes me a little uncomfortable. I want to be presented with food exactly how the chef thinks it out to be presented. Therefore, I hoped that by ordering a dish that many Westerners might turn their nose up at - and order it in Chinese to boot - they would assume that I'm serious about my Ma La. And so I ordered the Hot and Tangy Tripe (麻辣肚絲, málà dǔsī). Believe me, it was delicious. The meat was cooked perfectly, as was the seasoning. ...Except for the Ma. As I said before, I'm not an expert in Sichuanese cuisine by any stretch, but shouldn't a dish with "Ma la" in the name contain both Ma and La??? What happened?

                            At any rate, I headed over to Spicy and Tasty to give it another try. Kathryn was kind enough to link an interesting article by Kenji Alt (above), in which he specifically identified their Dry Fried Beef (干煸牛肉絲, gānbiān niúròusī) as one that brings the Ma. So guess what I ordered. That's right. And guess what it tasted like. That's right. It was incredibly delicious, except it was lacking a certain little something...

                            I refuse to believe that they are dumbing it all down for me. The dishes were still spicy-hot (though they could've been hotter, I suppose). If they were dumbing it down for me, wouldn't both the Ma AND La be missing?

                            Now, I really should go eat some vegetables or something. WAY too much meat today...

                            By the way, Kathryn, I picked up that Fuschia Dunlop book you suggested. It's wonderful. I actually read her memoir a few years ago, but didn't make the connection until I read the blurbs in the new book. I thought her name sounded familiar! ;-) Anyway, thanks again.

                            1. re: bht2109

                              You can request ground huajiao at Chengdu Heaven. I tend to put a bit more on some of the set dishes I get there and I dump a whole little plate into my soup there.

                              1. re: JFores

                                Spicy and Tasty is famous for their snacks/appetizers. In addition to that, they have a large, diverse menu which beats Manhattan offerings in quality, but so does Sichuan Gourmet (yes, they have an outpost in Flushing).

                                From both my personal experience and other people's feedback, the best Chuan places are 小辣椒 and 成都天府 , in that order, with The Hunan Kitchen Of The Grand Sichuan (or the other way around :-)) down Main St being on the upgrade alert watch.

                                IIRC, 麻辣肚絲 is seriously good at 成都天府 and you made a great choice. Just ask for extra ground 花椒 on the top if you have to, as JFores suggested.

                                1. re: diprey11

                                  oh yeah, what about Hunan Kitchen?

                                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/612697

                                  read the whole thread for the long drama.

                              2. re: bht2109

                                "I know many people say that if I want Ma, I should simply ask for it (or more of it). I don't know why, but this makes me a little uncomfortable. I want to be presented with food exactly how the chef thinks it out to be presented."

                                That's a nice sentiment, but I must say that in practice, it's not exactly how it works. Many great Chinese meals start off with a consultation! Anyway, I am never a fan of treating the waiter like an intelligent vacuum cleaner. I try to engage in conversation and root out the best dishes. It usually takes some digging.

                                1. re: Steve

                                  Indeed. At the so-called "New Shanghai" in Boston, my DC noted that the table of Chinese diners behind us also asked for 加麻 three times, no less. And another Chowhound has reported that Sichuan restaurants have tried to steer them away from spicy dishes when they were discovered to be Cantonese. So don't take it *too* personally, and *do* take a shaker of toasted and ground 花椒 with you--shop around for a brand that has the flavor profile you like. (I find Penzey's much less numbing and much more citrusy than I like, for example.)

                                  1. re: KWagle

                                    What brand do you prefer? I use Penzey's, but if there's a much better product, I'd certainly like to try it.

                                    1. re: ChiefHDB

                                      I haven't tracked down a brand I like. My current supply comes from a local restaurant. The proprietor of Lao Sichuan recommended huajiao from a particular region, and wrote down what I should look for, but I haven't found the stuff he recommended. I'm also wondering if the toasting process gets rid of the annoying menthol aspect, since it seems to annoy me most in broth.

                                      1. re: ChiefHDB

                                        The szechuan peppercorns that Penzey's has right now are the best I've ever had. very floral and super tingly. I got some yesterday from the location in Grand Central and just made a syrup for cocktails. the aroma of the hot tea I made perfumed the whole house. And the riff on a rye old fashioned with it is amazing, but my lips and tongue won't stop buzzing.

                                        1. re: JMF

                                          Hey JMF - how do you use them in an Old Fashioned? Any other cocktail uses for them...maybe we should take this outside. To the Spirits Board....

                                          1. re: scoopG

                                            Love old fashioneds and szechuan ppcorns...so really want to hear this recipe as well.

                                            1. re: scoopG

                                              I just made a old style old fashion (no muddled fruit0 and used the SP syrup instead of sugar or simple syrup. Very complex, spicy, tingling, floral, good.

                                              1. re: JMF

                                                We tried one in DC a few months ago that was very similar. Whiskey, simple syrup, orange peel, but with housemade Hellfire bitters using Charles H. Baker's recipe.

                                                I wonder what would happen if you combined Hellfire bitters with Sichuan peppercorn infused simple!

                                            2. re: JMF

                                              I haven't had to buy any peppercorns for a while because someone brought me a bag of them from Sichuan as a gift last year. As I am running out of stock I am also searching for a local source. As far as I can remember I haven't seen a local supply that can compare to the ones from Chinese in terms of fragrant and intensity. I'll check the Penzey brand since you guys are all suggesting it!

                                              1. re: YiReservation

                                                I have a jar of Penzey's right on my desk. I chew on one every now and then to perk me up. Very fragrant and good quality. Nice buzz to the tongue. Just had one now. Zzzzz...

                                                1. re: JMF

                                                  wow using peppercorns to stay alert sounds like an awesome idea....i just like to use handful of them whenever I cook my Szechuan comfort dishes. Speaking of that I just made some spicy hot pot with lots of peppercorns and a dozen spices...can't get enough of sichuan hot pot :)

                                      2. re: bht2109

                                        "Let me say right off the bat that I don't really like instructing restauramt owners as to my individual tastes. I know many people say that if I want Ma, I should simply ask for it (or more of it). I don't know why, but this makes me a little uncomfortable. I want to be presented with food exactly how the chef thinks it out to be presented."

                                        We're talking about Chinese restaurants in the U.S. where many customers don't want their heads blown off with heat. If a restaurant wants to stay in business it can't "ma" its customers away. If you're in search of ma, you must be prepared to make the minor compromise of asking for it. In this case it's ask and ye shall find.

                                        1. re: bht2109

                                          If you are really craving ma, in my mind fuqi feipian is the dish that cannot exist without it. Plus, given the ingredients (tongue/lung/tripe) and the fact that it is served cold, improper use of ma makes the dish meaningless / tasteless. I found it quite good at the Ollies on 42nd Street, though I also like the versions at S+T, Duoyi, etc. I agree with Jen and Andrew that you will get a better bang for your buck with a cold ma dish.

                                          Then, if you find that significantly ma enough for you, order the mapa dou fu (there's no rule that says you have to order everything at the same time at a sichuan restaurant), but I find that a much harder dish to master.

                                          1. re: John_Keenan

                                            Hunan House and Chengdu Heaven both have very good renditions of tongue and tripe. Lots of ma.

                                            -----
                                            Hunan House Restaurant
                                            29-30 Union St, Queens, NY 11354

                                          2. re: bht2109

                                            have you been back to flushing lately? A mall called New World Mall opened late last year and it features a food court that consists a few Sichuan stalls!
                                            If you like spicy stuff definitely check out the big mala tang stall I guarantee you it's got enough heat (ask for extra spicy!). I also like the stir fried meat and veggies of your choice stall right next to it. You'll find out the deal once you get there.
                                            Btw I grew up in Sichuan so I understand what you mean by "Where's the ma 麻" lol

                                            -----
                                            New World Mall
                                            40-21 Main St, Queens, NY 11354

                                        2. OK, you want ma? I agree that it's hard to find. One dish I remember being particularly ma-full is the cold rooster in Wu Liang Ye. That had a very healthy amount of it. Almost no one except me ever liked that dish, though...

                                          1. This thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/299300 and others about the legality of Szechuan peppercorns may have something to do with the elusiveness of the Ma La numb-mouth experience. According to a wiki on the subject, since 2005 it IS legal to import Szechuan peppercorns, but they must be heat-treated to avoid transmission of "citrus canker." I wonder if the heat-treatment has any effect on their numbing qualities. Another possibility is that many restaurants have never really reincorporated the ingredient into their repertoire since "legalization." Of course that wouldn't seem to apply to newer places. All that by way of saying that although I only made one short trip to China, I too have found that I never quite get that same tingling, almost narcotic effect from Szechuan dishes eaten here.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: donflan

                                              Even when Sichuan peppercorns were banned in the USA, they were still widely available in Chinatown - just not plainly marked or hidden.

                                              1. re: donflan

                                                thats not really an issue. there are a lot of the peppercorns around. But not all szechuan dishes use them to a large extent - there are plenty of great dishes that use chiles but not a big dose of powdered peppercorn. I bet tho, that if you and the op order some of the cold appetizer dishes with cilantro on them or else ma la tofu you will experience a major dose. Spicy and Tasty offers a large number of cold appetizers, some meat some vegetable. Personally I appreciate restaurants that dont carry it to an extreme, like Spicy Bampa in Brooklyn. Too much of the peppercorn and its sensually unpleasant - I cant taste anything else, a negative rather than a positive and dont associate a large dose of this spice with the very best cooking..

                                                Finally, why not buy some sichuan peppercorn, roast it, grind it and take it along to season your own food to taste.?

                                                -----
                                                Spicy Bampa
                                                6920 18th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11204

                                                1. re: jen kalb

                                                  I do this to jazz up ho-hum carry-out. Toast it, crush it, and it's good to go. I like a nice healthy does of the ma.

                                              2. Popping in to say that the three chili chicken at Szechuan Gourmet in the 30's we had recently had lots and lots of ma going on in it. Big time. A super dish.

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                  I've had it too (it's a recent addition, I think, cutely named chicken with chilli, chilli, chilli) and I give it three tongues up.

                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                    Confused: which SG, Manhattan or Flushing?

                                                    1. re: diprey11

                                                      Manhattan, the 39th St branch I'm assuming, not the West 56th St Manhattan SG.

                                                      1. re: diprey11

                                                        SG 39th St, we went to the 56th St one once and were served very nasty Americanized glop (have no idea why) so have never been back.

                                                    2. Check my review of Old Sichuan:
                                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7424...

                                                      If "ma" and "la" is what you want, just make sure to ask for it.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: bigjeff

                                                        And you'll get it in spades. You made my day, bigjeff.

                                                      2. i'm not that familiar with the sichuanese restaurants in Flushing, but I know Wu LIang Ye on 46th is better than the other Manhattan/midtown sichuanese places. So good that you usually "need" a reservation, but we sit at the bar. Last time I was back in the city I wen there for our one meal. Had the "Sichuanese noodle" which is not dan dan mien, but rather the inspiration for sesame noodles and a great whole fish with sichuanese peppercorns in teh sauce. twice cooked pork, ma po dofu, and kung pao chicken/shrimp are all excellent there and they have all the usual cold dishes which are also excellent.

                                                        1. Since this thread has been revived, I thought I'd point out a restaurant that I noticed for the first time in Flushing a couple of weeks ago. It's on one of the less-traveled streets, and may have missed notice by many on this Board. It's called Spicy King and while I didn't eat there, with a name like that, bht2109 might like to at least see if the food lives up to the moniker. The location is on the east side of Farrington Street, between Northern Boulevard and 35th Avenue.

                                                          EDIT: The restaurant seems to be in the Chowhound library with a different cross street. Chowhound may be correct.

                                                          -----
                                                          Spicy King
                                                          35-34 Farrington St, Queens, NY 11354

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: Greg

                                                            I entered that Chow record after passing by the place in January; wonder if it's moved or if there's a second location. I've been meaning to ask about it here, since there aren't many Hunanese restaurants around and Hunan House gets most of the attention.

                                                            -----
                                                            Hunan House
                                                            137-40 Northern Blvd, Queens, NY 11354

                                                            1. re: squid kun

                                                              BTW the place I saw was on the west side of the street. The Chow map appears to agree with your cross streets.

                                                              1. re: squid kun

                                                                Huh, it definitely does now, though it didn't earlier. Also, you are correct about which side of the street it is on. It was definitely the west side, not sure why I typed east earlier. Thanks for the correction.