I would not have called myself a masochist, up until the day I realised that I really loved mala.
I’m not special, I know. Ever since the mala hot pot revolution started, oh, maybe about seven years back, it’s been nothing short of unstoppable – the whole country seems to have clutched the spicy, tingly, numbing taste phenomenon to its bosom like a long-lost Sichuan cousin.
First, there was the rash of mala xiang guo stalls that started breaking out in food courts all over Singapore. Then, more and more restaurants offering Sichuan-based cuisine started opening. Last year, mala chips were all the rage, and it seemed as if new brands and offerings were popping up in stores every month.
And when fast food chains jump unabashedly on the bandwagon, you know we’ve reached peak mala fever.
With innovative “fusion” foods like southern fried chicken meets tongue-numbing spice on top of offerings that have been spotted around the island such as spicy mala pizza, fries and even chicken rice, it’s clear that Singaporeans have appropriated this branch of Sichuan cuisine and developed our own strain. Yup, mala-everything is the new salted egg, and it looks like it’s here to stay for quite a while.
What makes the spicy mala dining experience such an event? Certainly not the spice factor alone, since chillies have always been life here in our part of the world. Nor is it the quality of the ingredients, which you often end up hardly tasting.
If you ask me, it’s the all-or-nothing nature of diving into an immersive meal that requires you to be fully present. It requires you to submit.
When I order a mala dish and the server asks, “Would you like Mild, Medium or Extra Spicy?”, my brain says, “Mild”; my stomach says, “Medium”; but my mouth always blurts, “Extra spicy, please.”
Why? Because it’s there. You know, like Mount Everest.
It’s not shiok unless you’re wearing a napkin as a bib to prevent oil splatters on your clothes, sweating like a pig, gasping for air, blowing your nose into soggy tissues and crying until your mascara runs. There’s no wishy-washy nibbling, grazing, dieting or first-date-impressing here. It’s all or nothing.
We willingly inflict this red-hot torture on ourselves, I think, for pretty much the same reason that people spend thousands of dollars to jump out of planes in search of a thrill.
In a saturated dining scene that offers all manner of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami taste combinations, spicy mala food adds an extra layer of sensorial experience: It combines the sense of taste with the sense of touch.
Never mind that “touch” takes the form of heat and numbness that ultimately translate into pain. When you find yourself really enjoying a spicy mala dish that sets your mouth on fire and makes your tongue feel zapped with electricity, you can begin to understand the appeal of after-dark activities that are labelled deviant and involve leather, Dakota Johnson and a number of shades of grey.
And never mind that the next morning, you might end up clutching your stomach and questioning your decisions. It’s always a 50 First Dates situation: Two days later, you’ll have forgotten all about the pain and started to crave mala again.
This also explains why people stumble out of one bad relationship and straight into the next: Our brains are very good at obliterating past trauma.
Mala, of course, isn't an everyday treat. It's an event. A self-contained occasion in itself. A celebration of being fully, painfully, sense-tinglingly alive. To paraphrase the immortal words of Britney Spears: Hit me, auntie, one more time. And make it Extra Spicy, please.