Any food that takes my mouth and body on an adventure is something I want to try. I’ve always known mala chicken to be exactly that, but truthfully I’ve never tried it when I’ve dined out — largely because I don’t like it when spicy food is so spicy that I’m unable to enjoy it.
That all changed when I came across Maggie Zhu’s recipe for mala chicken on Instagram. Reading her description of the meal alone compelled me to give it a shot at home, and the short clip showed me exactly how to do that; seeing how quick and easy she made it look, I decided to try it.
Mala chicken gets its name because of a specific ingredient: Sichuan peppercorns. On Maggie’s website, Omnivore’s Cookbook, she goes into detail about the Sichuan peppercorn and the numbing that happens when you bite into one. This buzzy sensation is called “málà” and it can last for several minutes. It’s not really spicy as you may think a peppercorn to be, however, and includes notes of citrus, is very floral, earthy, and aromatic.
Making mala chicken, once you’ve measured out your ingredients, takes no more than 12 minutes. After you’ve marinated and then coated the chicken in the seasoned cornstarch mixture, it gets flash fried and set aside. Next, infuse your oil by cooking the peppercorns. At this point, you can leave your peppercorns in or you can remove them. If you decide to leave them, take care as you eat your chicken — biting into one can numb your mouth a bit too much.
Add all of your aromatics (ginger, garlic, and scallions) to release their fragrance. Then add the chili pepper mixture. I only used 1 cup of the dried chili peppers to mitigate the spice level a bit. I also decided to slice them, which is suggested as an option as well. The chicken gets returned to the pan and tossed together with everything to coat. Stir in the cilantro; garnish with additional scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds; and serve! I had mine alongside some steamed rice.
My Honest Thoughts on Maggie Zhu’s Mala Chicken
I think what makes this dish so interesting is that it engages all of your senses in a cool way. When the chicken is presented, it’s got great visual texture. The small sesame seeds, the pops of green from the cilantro and scallions, and the deep red from the chilis give your eyes plenty to take in. The look of the dish is also deceiving because while you may look at this dish and think the chilis are going to be too spicy, the spice isn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be.
After your eyes process what you’re seeing, the aromas of the garlic, scallions, ginger, and Sichuan hit your nose. The smell is tingly, earthy, and sharp and smells deeply savory. My eyes did get a little watery when I gave a good whiff, but it wasn’t a deterrent in any way. I still couldn’t wait to dig in.
I took my first bite and got smokiness that lingered a bit. It was a gradual lead-up to feel the heat on my tongue. Once I did, however, it was a bit strong. As I continued to chew, the Sichuan took over and acted extremely protective over my taste buds, numbing them so that the spice didn’t hurt.
The things that were happening in my mouth were so fun to think about and feel. I think that’s why this chicken is so irresistible. Once I was finished, I could feel the buzzing in my mouth as well as in the back of my throat and in stomach. It was almost cooling like mint. I’ve never eaten anything more fun and delicious. If you’re an adventurous eater who likes to have all your senses engaged when you eat, I highly recommend adding this to your recipe lineup.
2 Tips for Making Mala Chicken