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Seeking Hua Jiao! What dish provides the most mala (spicy + numbing) sensation?

I've never been a huge fan of Sichuan dishes because my primary experience is that they were all submerged in a bath of the same red chili oil.

However I've lately become hooked on the Dun Dun noodles and the Mapo Dofou at Thailand Cafe (the crappy Thai place in Cambridge which serves great Sichuan), even asking for extra "hua jao", so I can get my mouth numbing on.

Where can I maximize this complex sensation of hot and numb? For those familiar with my food allergies, caveat is NO sesame seeds or paste (Sesame oil is fine).


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  1. Get the ma la broth at Little Q (or Q) hotpot - along with other herbs, it's loaded with hua jiao. So tasty but blow your tongue and lips off spicy. I normally half to scoop half of that out before I start cooking my food.

    2 Replies
    1. re: kobuta

      I second the ma la broth at Little Q - towards the end of dinner, after its reduced a good bit, the stuff just hits you with that numbing heat. What's all that stuff in the broth? Some it of must be tree bark from Hell..

      Also, if you can make the trek, the hand pulled noodles at Gene's Flatbread Cafe in Chelmsford can really get the ma la going.

      Chilli Garden in Medford Sq. is also a go-to for dishes that will crank up the intensity.

      1. re: grant.cook

        Ma La at Genes? None that i noticed. Some chili oil and pepper flake and a ton of garlic.. but not sichuan pepper corns that i noticed.

    2. Paging the bald man with the 麻 obsession...

      2 Replies
      1. re: Luther

        Wagle? That guy can be a little condescending.

      2. Check the Fuloon threads - they can hit you with the Ma and the La. First time I ever got numbed out was at the Fuloon chowhound lunch a few years back. Eye-opening to say the least.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          I just lunched there at Fuloon and ordered the Jingu (pronounced sort of like schwee-ju). It's the fish fillets swimming in a cauldron of red fire. The last time I had that much ma-la action was Red Pepper when I ordered the dry fish fillets. It was absolutely smothered with corns and chilis. Which was awesome, I ate the whole huge 12 inch dish of it.

          Fuloon's Jingu was very nice. The fish itself didn't necessarily rise above other Sichuan specialist places, it was very good, but I noticed a crisp deeper menthol hit in the Sichuan peppercorns. I suspect they poured boiling hot oil on top of the dish to set off the corns. It works, nice little florish. Thai and Chinese cooks will do that with fresh Sichuan Peppercorn often, ladle over a bit of hot oil on it.

          1. re: tatsu

            Thanks, tatsu. Jingu/shuizhu is also the first dish that comes to mind here. Several places do it well (I most frequent New Shang-Hang), but I agree that what makes this dish, or most any highlighting hua jiao, is a potent bag of fresh corns but also some proper fat dissolution. There's also such thing as too much HJ.

            1. re: tatsu

              What's with that pronunciation? AFAIK this is 金骨魚片, "gold bone fish filets," which in mandarin should be pronounced roughly as it looks in English, "jin gu." If you want to get specific it's the same "j" as Beijing which is more like a "chy" sound. "Chyin koo."

              EDIT: Just realized you're talking about 水煮魚, "water cooked fish." Shway-zhu yu. Jin gu fish filets is a different dish! It is entirely dry, not a big bowl of sauce. But it is sometimes seasoned with a good dose of sichuan pepper too.

              1. re: Luther

                Ohhh, okay, thanks, that explains my confusion as to why it is not spelled anything like it's pronounciation. I think several of us had made this mistake in the past though.

                1. re: Luther

                  When Top Garden was still new and delicious, Andy Tannenbaum and I went there and ran into hargau, who had ordered the fei teng fish, which he let me sample. It had, among other differences, bean thread noodles or something like them. Other than that it seemed a lot like shui zhi fish.

                  My favorite ma dish is the gan guo fish at "Sichuan Gourmet" Framingham, which is similar to the jin gu fish at the other locations, though it has different vegetables and spicing. "Gan guo" seems to refer to a style of dish served in a mini wok over sterno, and you can get gan guo fish at "New Shanghai" and possibly "Thailand Cafe."

                  "Sichuan Gourmet" Brookline has a couple of good options as well, namely the street style barbecue and gan guo beef. And Red Pepper certainly has some ma on its menu as well.

            2. Go to Sichuan Gourmet and look for the bowl of hell as we like to call it. It's the only 3 or 4 pepper dish on the menu. Fish and vegetables swimming in red broth :-)

              If you go to Little Q, try the Crazy Mala broth...the waitress said it's really spicy and can't believe they offer it. Haven't tried it yet, but I will at one point ;-)

              7 Replies
              1. re: Spike

                Is the Crazy Ma La some variant of the normal Ma La? Like the one where you dare the chef to spice it up, and he reaches for the red fluid in a gasoline can on top of the shelf?

                1. re: grant.cook

                  I think someone must have done that. I've never seen anyone order the Crazy Ma La broth...been tempted to just see what it's like :-)

                  The Jingu fish tatsu describes above is what I lovingly refer to as the Bowl Of Hell. If you drink the broth as a soup, you'll understand why...made the mistake of doing that on a dare ;-)

                  1. re: Spike

                    I misread that as "on a date", but now I'm not sure which would be a worse idea. ;)

                    1. re: Prav

                      if your date can drink the bowl of hell, you've met your match Prav :-)

                    2. re: Spike

                      My crazy brother in- law gets the crazy Mala every time we go to Q in Chinatown. To be honest I've tried it and my tongue is usually already numb from the regular Mala that I can't taste much of a difference. The waitstaff also has trouble telling them apart, so if someone in your party orders it and you order the regular Mala.....

                  2. re: Spike

                    Do you mean the jingu fish fillets? We had that tonight along with a damn good rendition of beef wrapped in scallion pancakes (not at all Sichuan, of course) and the real standout, a new special consisting of of shredded chicken, onions, black pepper and garlic, which I could easily have eaten a LOT more of.

                    The jingu fish does come in a bowl of broth. I misspoke earlier when I said it was similar to the gan guo fish. It's xiang la fish that's similar to gan guo fish.


                  3. Sliced Fish Szechuan Style at Gourmet Dumpling House got me hooked on the ma la, and is still my favorite preparation.

                    1. One of my favorites is the ma la lamb at Sichuan Gourmet. (When I order it "extra spicy" at the Brookline location, the manager always laughs at the redundancy of "ma la extra spicy"!)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Blumie

                        Next time say "jia ma, jia la" (pronounced more like 'ja’ but that's the pinyin. Oh, on an iPad I can easily add 加麻 加辣.)

                      2. Two possibilities - a hot sauce known as Dave's Insanity or fresh chiles known as Trinidad Moruga Scorpion added to whatever your preparing. The TMS is now the hottest capsicum on the planet. Dave's Insanity has been around for more than a decade and made with an extract that has double the heat intensity than does its chile source.

                        32 Replies
                        1. re: ChiliDude

                          I have a bottle of Dave's Insanity somewhere and find it nearly inedible in quantities over a microdroplet.

                          What I am really looking for is the anesthetic property. Does the other suggestion you made provide the numbing sensation of the ma la pepper I am referring to? (Dave's certainly doesn't, unfortunately).


                          1. re: Prav

                            I bought a bottle of oriental mascot Szechuan pepper oil at a market up in Chelmsford, now I can get that numbing sensation anytime I want. Boil up some store dumplings or add it to any dish that need it

                            1. re: lc02139

                              Wow, this stuff's awesome. Just picked up a bottle from Kam Man and put a teaspoon in some congee. Mouth is all numb now. :)

                            2. re: Prav

                              Penzey's in Arlington has Sichuan peppercorns, fyi. Take them and toast in a pan along with hot peppers, grind, and enjoy. You can also balance the numbing-to-hot ratio to your taste -- the actual peppercorn itself isn't spicy, just numbing, with this lovely light floral taste.

                              (Lots of the stores in Chinatown probably have it as well, I just bought mine at Penzey's since it was nearby.)

                              1. re: antimony

                                If you ever get to Kan Man or the larger C-Mart, look for pink or magenta colored prickly ash. The brown or pre-grinded ones are no good. In white world, Penzey's and Formaggio are good, but at a small premium for a marginally sought out flavor.

                                1. re: tatsu

                                  Yeah, I was sure I could get it cheaper and fresher downtown, but I was shopping by bike and Penzey's was a lot closer. Next time I'm at C-Mart I'll take a look -- I should replace my stock as they're starting to get old and less pungent.

                                  I don't think my coffee grinder will ever get used for coffee again, heh. I'm not sure I want to find out what ma la coffee tastes like.

                                    1. re: antimony

                                      Those things are pretty damn tough, very woody, knifes are useless on them. Well, there is that trick of shoving and grinding part of a paper towel in the coffee grinder. Fairly effective then I wash it out. I usually make a small batch of ma-la (With authentic Facing Heaven Chili, the other half of ma-la that never gets talked about, curiously enough, and is really, really hard to find.) Then I stick my batch in a spice jar in the freezer. Ma-la powder anytime I want!

                                      That said, a coffee grinder is not very good for this. Something like a grain mill would be better.

                                      1. re: tatsu

                                        Huajiao is indeed hard to grind into a smooth powder. For my dry rub (for those falling off the bone ribs) I've been grinding it with salt in the grinder, which seems to help. But it's worth trying a burr grinder, I guess.

                                        1. re: KWagle

                                          handheld burr grinder works well...

                                        2. re: tatsu

                                          I grind the peppercorns in a blade coffee grinder. It works fine since I have to sift out the woody parts anyway.

                                          Do you find the Facing Heaven Chilis locally? I'm hoping it's not in Quincy.

                                          1. re: beetlebug

                                            I bought them at Super 88 back when it was Super 88... I guess that's not much encouragement that they'd have them now

                                            1. re: Luther

                                              Actually that is where I found Facing Heaven Chili in whole. Kan Man in South Bay had them, but it was in a huge bag already ground up. Admittedly, it's not all that unique, it's slightly less hot and smoky than the normal long thin dried chilis you find commonly, but also a bit fruiter. I found them whole at Hong Kong Market, in Allston, which I guess is the new Super 88. HK definitely improved from a year or two ago, I haven't stepped foot in a long time, but it's close, not equal, to the larger C-Mart in Chinatown believe it or not. It was pretty awful when it initially took over for 88. Some staples I use for Sichuan and Chinese cooking

                                              1.) Chang Shing Silken Tofu, HK yes
                                              2.) Doubanjian-la (spicy Sichuan bean paste), HK no, only glaring exception
                                              3.) Hua Tiao and/or Jia Fan 3-year old non-salted cooking wine from Shaoxing province, HK yes
                                              4.) Dried Tangerine Peel, HK yes

                                              The produce is good and cheap, not really a huge Boston rent premium. Beats H-Mart, there's always something rotting on the floor at H-Mart. Fresh fish and meat is meh, but they do have a pretty good selection of HK style sausages, good for fried rice. The pre-made freezer selection is surprisingly good and the pantry items are well-stocked except the Doubanjian I mentioned. It was clean and shelves orderly, save the one sparrow floating and happily chirping around. The new Kan Man is still my #1 but this is #2 and a lot closer.

                                              1. re: tatsu

                                                Saw a couple of jarred versions of doubanjian at Hong Kong market. One was Pixian chili bean paste. Don't recall the other but I think it was from Chengdu. I haven't had much trouble finding it at Ming's or at the C-Mart on Washington St. My favorite though is the kind in the foil packs from Kam Man. In general I feel the same way you do about Facing Heaven chilies - you don't necessarily need the real thing. That spicy fermented bean taste and texture is readily available in Lee Kum Kee chile bean sauce or even Korean gochujang. I also like the Japanese version, which doesn't have any wheat if you judge by the jar in my fridge.

                                                Speaking of whole dry chilies, back when Fuschia Dunlop's first book came out I found Ming's was the only place to get Facing Heaven chilies. Haven't seen them there in years though, and it turns out I might have misidentified them. I was judging only by the shape I'd seen in photos or read in descriptions, and it seemed to match. Now I read somewhere that there's a difference between Sichuan chilies - gan hai jiao - and Facing Heaven chilies - chao tian jiao. Do you know if that's right? At any rate, Kan Man has stocked whole gan hai jiao for some time. And I agree, Kan Man is #1.

                                            2. re: beetlebug

                                              I think a burr grinder set to medium might be ideal. I don't think a fine powder is ideal, I would want more of a course black pepper grind. I'm sure it would just completely gum up a hand pepper grinder and break the gears of a cheap one. A fine smooth powder would be too much, it would just blanket and over-whelm the dish. Of course if you are doing meats or something, that may be different, but I'm talking garnishing Sichuan dishes.

                                              I do exactly the same as beetlebug although it's not entirely satisfactory.

                                              1. re: tatsu

                                                I have a small camping pepper grinder from GSI outdoors, and it grinds huajiao quite well.

                                              2. re: beetlebug

                                                I find a blade grinder leaves a fine powder and lots of husk. Does the husk actually have flavor? 花椒 is so cheap I wouldn't mind tossing the husks, but it does seem wasteful if they have the taste.

                                                1. re: KWagle

                                                  I don't think the husk has any real flavor and it's visually unappealing when you sprinkle it on the dish. Whenever I eat sichuanese out, there aren't any ugly husks on the dishes. I used to hand pound (with a mortar and pestle) and even that method left a lot of husks. The benefit of putting it through a sieve is that it gets rid of the unsightly husks, and those stupid black seeds and any random twigs that didn't get ground up.

                                                  1. re: beetlebug

                                                    I often find whole peppercorns in Sichuan dishes (like the gan guo fish and beef) and almost never get powder with husks.

                                          2. re: tatsu

                                            Out of curiosity, where is there a CMart that's bigger than Kam Man?

                                        3. re: Prav

                                          Unfortunately, I cannot answer the question about the anesthetic properties of the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion because I have not had the pleasure of taste testing it. I have seeds to be planted in my small garden this coming Spring with the hope of harvesting some TMS pods.

                                          I also misinterpreted the desire for the anesthetic property. I assume that you wish the capsaicin contained in the placenta of the chile to render that property. You may need to go to a pharmacy for a medication made with capsaicin for that purpose.

                                          1. re: ChiliDude

                                            This newer pepper (Trinidad Moruga) is loaded with capsaicin and gets a Scoville Scale rating between 1.5 and 2.0 million, which places it somewhere 5-10 times hotter than a habanero. However, this is because of its capsaicin. I don't think Trinidad Moregas have sanshool, which is the numbing chemical found in szechuan peppercorns and is an entirely separate chemical beast.

                                            1. re: Science Chick

                                              Here's a paper that attempts to explain why we feel the tingle - http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/1...

                                              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                The cellular mechanism of how sanshool works is better explained in this paper. Coincidentally, my lab has done some work on this protein.....


                                                  1. re: Science Chick

                                                    I guess if you're a real chile-head, you won't be content carrying around a little bottle of pure capsaicin to put in your food anymore. Now you'll need a bottle of sanshool too. Fun DIY project!

                                                    "Hydroxy--sanshool (2E,6Z,8E,10E)-2'-hydroxyl-N-isobutyl-2,6,8,10-dodecatetraenamide) was purified as follows: dried seeds from Zanthoxylum piperitum (50 g; San Francisco Herb Company) were ground to a fine powder and extracted twice, each time with 1 liter diethyl ether for 24 h at 4 °C. Extracts were combined and filtered, solvent removed in vacuo, and the residue further dried on high vacuum overnight to yield 4.25 g of crude material. This was further purified by flash chromatography (1:2 ethyl acetate/hexanes; 230–400-mesh silica gel, Selecto Scientific) followed by preparative HPLC (30–100% methanol gradient over 40 min; 10 ml min-1; COMBI-A C18 preparatory column, Peeke Scientific; absorbance monitored at 215 and 245 nm) to give 55.2 mg of sanshool (0.1% yield; pale brown solid). As indicated by NMR spectra, this material consists predominantly of hydroxy--sanshool. LC-ESI-MS [MH]+m/z for hydroxy--sanshool, C16H25NO2: calculated, 264.38; observed, 264.48. Pure hydroxy--sanshool was isolated using an Xterra C-18 column (Waters) on a Parallex Flex (Biotage) preparative HPLC instrument with a solvent gradient of 20–70% acetonitrile/water at a flow rate of 20 ml min-1 for 60 min. Injections were monitored at 254 nm and each fraction lyophilized and assessed by 1H NMR."

                                                    1. re: Luther

                                                      citation please, or is this your own protocol?

                                                      1. re: Science Chick

                                                        It's from the methods of your link!

                                                    1. re: Taralli

                                                      Yes, that is awesome writing.....and rarely found in scientific literature!

                                          2. Update: Picked up some mapo tofou today at "One of the Kind" (whose sign and name still crack me up), the restaurant in the Super 88 food court. I Asked for it 'extra spicy' with 'extra hua jiao'. I've only tasted a couple spoons of it so far, but it is delivering what I need!

                                            Also got some "northern style pan fried dumplings" which are rectangular rolled skins, pan fried with crispy patches, and are open on one end. The filling is a garlicy pork studded with some kind of green.

                                            1. I had the gan guo beef at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline a week or so ago. It totally fit the bill. Very fire-y and with tons of Sichuan peppercorns for that floral-then-numb taste. I HAVE to go back for more. Plus, my husband can't eat it (too spicy), so I don't have to share!

                                              1. Zoe's in Somerville is another local option. The waitresses there may raise an eyebrow if you order mapo tofu, since many customers are overwhelmed by the sensation you crave. Just let them know what you're after and you're certain to get just that and maybe then some, per request!

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: pocketviking

                                                  Awesome, thanks! I love this dish so much, I may have to create a mapo-map or something, what with the variations around town. :)

                                                2. Ma po tofu at New Shanghai recently boasted a very healthy dose of Sichuan peppercorns. $7 at lunch with soup, app and rice.


                                                  1. Mapo Dofu at Chilli Garden has plenty of Sichuan peppercorn. IMO it's the best version of the dish in the area. Great balance of ma and la, fresh silky tofu.