Living in a cultural melting pot with diverse cuisines, Singaporeans are no novices when it comes to spicy foods. However, few foods have created a cult following the way mala (literally translated to ‘numbingly spicy’) has. Best recognised in a hot pot broth, the unique flavour profile of the spice has now made its way into everything from chips to pizza. We attempt to decode Singapore’s mala obsession.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment mala became a national obsession, we can say with certainty that the feverish craze for this numbing spice shows no signs of abating. Originating from Chongqing in Southwest China, mala’s unusual flavour profile continues to hold many Singaporeans captivated.
From its piquant aroma permeating numerous hot pot joints and mala xiang guo (loosely translated as spicy stir-fry hot pot) stalls dotting food courts and hawker centres to mala-flavoured everything – chips, popcorn, peanuts, pizza, konjac jelly – mala is now trend du jour.
The science behind the mala craze
With Singapore’s intensely muggy climate and mala’s sweat-inducing properties, it begs the question: Why do Singaporeans love mala despite our humidity? The answer to this confounder possibly lies in the ingredients that make up the ma (numbing) and la (spicy) in mala.
While the mala sauce is concocted with a slew of spices, the key ingredients responsible for its defining numbing spiciness are chilli peppers and Sichuan peppercorns.
“Mala seasoning combines the spicy heat from capsaicin in chilli peppers with a numbing or tingling sensation from the hydroxy-α-sanshool in Sichuan peppercorns, so it’s a unique and interesting sensory experience that people clearly enjoy,” says Dr Keri McCrickerd, a research scientist with the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) who studies eating behaviours.
Kezlyn Lim, a research dietitian with SICS who looks into the dietary factors associated with gastrointestinal health, explains how the chemical compounds capsaicin and hydroxy-α-sanshool affect the body from a physiological standpoint. “Capsaicin is the chemical component in chilli peppers that creates a burning sensation when it comes in contact with receptors on the tongue that signal pain. This is accompanied by a rush of endorphins – our body’s natural painkiller – which can create a “feel-good” effect, or what many Singaporeans coin ‘shiok’ when they eat spicy food. Combined with the numbing effects of the hydroxy-α-sanshool found in the Sichuan peppers used, it creates mala’s distinctive spicy, numbing experience,” says Kezlyn.
Some like it hot
If you’ve watched contestants sweating and tearing through the World Championship of Chili Pepper Eating on Netflix’s We are the Champions, you might be familiar with the Scoville scale – a measurement of the heat or spiciness of chilli peppers based on the concentration of capsaicinoids (of which capsaicin is the predominant component). The “heat” of these chilli peppers are measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Kezlyn shares that Sichuan chilli peppers have an average of 50,000 to 70,000 SHU on the Scoville scale, which is sitting close to the middle of the spice-o-meter. “For comparison, this is almost on a par with the renowned chilli padi in Singapore,” she says.
Both Dr McCrickerd and Kezlyn are spice neophytes – Dr McCrickerd enjoys spice to a certain degree but admits that tabasco is her limit (“If I’m crying at dinner, I’d like those to be tears of happiness, not pain!”), while Kezlyn says she belongs to the minority of Singaporeans who can’t take spicy food well (“A tinge of spiciness already has my tongue in flames”).
So what is it that determines an individual’s tolerance to spicy food, and why do some enjoy it while others consider it torture? “There are probably two main reasons. Firstly, differences in the type and number of sensory receptors that detect these sensations and the function of a person’s digestive system might affect the level of spice they perceive and enjoy consuming. Secondly, a person’s previous exposure to these sensations will affect their tolerance. Regular consumption of spicy seasoning and even pairing spice with other foods or ingredients you already like will likely increase the chance of developing a preference for spicy foods,” explains Dr McCrickerd.
Burn it up
While some research associates the consumption of spicy foods with slight increases in metabolism, Kezlyn cautions that these foods would have to be consumed in unrealistic quantities in order to offer any significant health benefit and more research is still required to confirm these claims.
Mala addicts should also take note that the seasoning isn’t just made from chilli peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. The sauce also usually contains chilli powder, fermented chilli bean paste, clove, garlic, star anise, black cardamon, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, salt and sugar – all of which are simmered in beef fat and vegetable oil for hours. “The hidden calories consumed will outweigh any small increase in metabolism and contribute to weight gain,” says Kezlyn.
Dr McCrickerd also points out that mala isn’t typically consumed in isolation, which means that one also has to be mindful of the foods that mala is used to season. Snacks like mala potato chips and fried fish skin are high in calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Furthermore, consumption of mala or any kind of spicy food in large quantities may create more trouble for your tummy than it’s worth. “The main risk of consuming too much mala is probably stomach troubles. The chilli spices in mala are essentially irritants. When you consume too much, the spices can irritate different parts of your digestive system, including your stomach and intestines. If you regularly feel discomfort or pain after consuming spicy food, it could be a sign that you need to cut down,” says Dr McCrickerd. Kezlyn adds that folks with sensitive bowels or gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and gastritis should go easy on spice levels as it can increase severity of gastrointestinal symptoms. Taking all this into consideration, Dr McCrickerd advises consuming mala foods in moderation as part of a balanced and varied diet.
ABOUT DR KERI MCKRICKERD
Dr Keri McCrickerd is a research scientist at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and a research psychologist specialising in eating behaviour. Through her research, she aims to understand why we eat the way we do and develop strategies to promote health and well-being through regulation of appetite and food intake. Her work combines behavioural studies with insights gained from the GUSTO birth cohort and partnerships with local schools.
ABOUT KEZLYN LIM
Kezlyn Lim is an accredited practising dietitian with research interests in gastrointestinal health, metabolic health and personalised nutrition. She is a research dietitian with the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS). One of the projects she is currently involved in is the Gut health in Australia and Singapore for Science and Innovation (GASSI) study, which explores the bilateral understanding of gut health experiences and dietary factors associated with gastrointestinal health.