Tasty Roots: Chef Wendy Zeng on Málà Spice
Words by Chef Wendy Zeng
420 Chopped Champion 2021
Growing up in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in China, I started cooking in my grandfather’s kitchen when I was 7. I had the privilege of growing up immersed in the flavors and techniques of Sichuan cuisine, which instilled in me an intuition for how diverse ingredients can come together to build a complex flavor and textural experience. Building complex but balanced flavor profiles is a hallmark of mastering Sichuan cuisine.
Málà is a perfect example of our region’s complexity. Ma in Chinese means numbing (麻) and La means spicy (辣).
Together they refer to the spice profile of Sichuan Peppercorns, which are the cutest purple (sometimes green) spice berries that originated in Sichuan but have garnered worldwide popularity. Ma is actually as much of a sensation as it is a flavor. The spice compounds vibrate our taste buds at 50 hertz – producing a numbing feeling, which pairs wonderfully with the spicy chilis of the region.
Beyond all the feels is the most incredible terpene profile of floral and bergamot citrus forward notes from the Myrcene and Limonene, which has anti-inflammatory benefits. There’s also a refreshing herbaceous side to its terpene profile from the Pinene, which makes it perfect for summer vinaigrettes or pairing with raw seafood.
My family and I immigrated to Memphis, Tennessee when I was 10. After getting to know Southern BBQ and soul food, I realized that, similar to Sichuan cuisine, Southern food is about family, history, and the dishes that bring us together.
Living in LA for the past 14 years, the food I make now weaves together the flavors and techniques of my familial roots with LA’s local influences.