Secrets of Kungfu Part 1: Mala Powder

Someone once wrote of Taijiquan, “There are no secrets.”

Well, of course, there are secrets. But at the same time, there are no secrets. This is because most of the time knowing something you are not supposed to know just means you know something you aren’t supposed to know yet. To the Chinese this is veiwed as a giant waste of time — “reaching for the far and ignoring the near” — and is considered the cause of most of the failures in the Kungfu world. About 100 years ago, I believe, a teacher in the Jing Wu men (whose name I forget but will look up later) lamented that the major sickness in the kungfu world is that players chase after skills they are simply not ready to express.

Thus, I come to reveal one of Kungfu’s many secrets — a secret you likely will not understand, or appreciate. So then you may wonder why I am coming to reveal this secret. It’s to put a seed in your mind, so that when you are ready you will re-discover what I have said for yourself. The secret is Mala powder. Ma meaning “numbness” and “la” meaning spice. According to Wikipedia:

The term málà is a combination of two Chinese characters: “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (hot)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.

The numbness is caused by Sichuan pepper, which contains 3% hydroxy-alpha-sanshool. The recipe often uses dried red peppers that are less spicy than bird’s eye chili, which is widely used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Okay, so what’s the secret then? The secret is that this spicy hot pepper flavour releases endorphins, and burns your mouth so much that it can give you an epiphany. Just that, the change of mind and the subsequent devotion to spicy food — becoming a spicy food afficionado, a pepper expert, maybe even growing your own peppers — and also a deepening appreciation of Chinese culture in general, will help your Kungfu. Not much of a secret, is it? Oh, but it is deeper than you can imagine. It probably hasn’t even hit you yet that you just learned two new Chinese words — that is, if you didn’t know Chinese already.

Now I’m going to tell you a deeper secret about Szechuan cooking that is unknown in the west. Szechuan cooking isn’t actually all about burning your tongue off. That’s why they don’t use peppers hotter than bird’s eye. But you need to keep in mind that authentic Szechuan cooking uses peppers of a particular variety called “Chao Tian” (facing heaven).

Here is where western knowledge drops off. You see, Chao Tian (in Chinese) is a term something like Heirloom is (in English) for describing peppers. I.E. most heirloom peppers, as I’ve heard, grow upside down like Chao Tian does. What you need to know therefore is that there are many types of Chao Tian peppers and that only specific ones are used for real, authentic Mala.

First, there is a common “Chao Tian La Jiao”, which looks like a normal cayenne or possibly Thai hot pepper, and is almost twice as hot as a Seranno. These are to be differentiated to the “Kung Pao” peppers being passed around recently which are only as hot as a low-end Seranno. I call these the “long” Chao Tians because they are the longest ones.

  • Chao Tian La Jiao (Long) – 15,000 to 30,000 SHU,
  • Seranno Pepper – 10,000 to 25,000 SHU
  • Kung Pao Pepper (Modern Hybrid) – 10,000 to 15,000 SHU

Next on the Chao Tian list is the Five-Color Pepper. These peppers look like a cross between peppers and cherry tomatoes (they’re not long) and they can come in multiple colors. They are around twice as strong as a seranno pepper. I call these the “round” Chao Tians, and they’re hotter than the Long ones.

  • Chao Tian La Jiao (Round) — “Wu Se (Five Color)” variant — 30,000 to 50,000 SHU

There are also many regional variants. In South Taiwan I found the following versions:

  • Chao Tian La Jiao (Small) –“Ji Xin (Chicken Heart)” variant — 10,000 to 20,000 SHU


Making Mala Powder

I just started making Mala powder, and what I use is approximately 1/3 Garlic, 1/3 Peppercorns and 1/3 Chilies. I’m experimenting as I go.

updating soon