Until the last decade, the classic Sichuan flavor combination ma la (numbing and hot) was hard to come by in the United States. Sichuan peppercorns, the only common source of the numbing, tingly sensation called ma in Chinese, were banned from import to the US because they could transmit a kind of citrus canker. Fortunately, the ban was lifted in 2005, provided all imports are heat-treated to destroy the bacteria that cause the problem.
This is a big win for us, because ma la is a wonderful addition to the cook’s vocabulary. This beautiful, delicious, bright orange oil is a quick and convenient way to try the flavors at home. Since I started making it, I’ve almost never lacked a little brown-glass jar of ma la oil next to my stove. (Perhaps I should store it more carefully, but it seems fine there.)
I was a little confused at first about how to use this oil. Fuschia Dunlop calls for it in several recipes, and always in quantities measured in tablespoons. I looked at the recipes and thought, “My goodness, that’s going to be oily.” But this isn’t a case where you strain the flavorings out; a tablespoon is scooped from the bottom of the jar, and tends to be about half oil and half chile flakes and other flavorings. That’s why all the ingredients in the recipe (with the exception of optional star anise) are ground, rather than whole; they all go into the finished dish and are eaten.
Sichuan peppercorns are no longer hard to find. Check your local Asian grocery, or order from Penzey’s or Savory Spice Shop. (If using a search function, note that these sources use the spellings “Szechuan” and “Szechwan,” respectively. At this writing, Savory had a better price, and I like to use them because they are based in Colorado, so are regional for me.) You’ll also need to pick up some Korean ground red chile pepper, “kochukaru.” Kochukaru is a delicious variety of chile powder, ground finer than red chile flakes but coarser than regular chile powders, with a divine roastiness and not too much heat. It’s a necessary ingredient in kimchi, so you can find it in any grocery store that caters to a clientele that cooks Korean food, or online at Hmart or Amazon.
If you can’t find kochukaru, you can try this recipe with only crushed red pepper, but it will be much hotter and lack that aromatic roasted flavor. Kochukaru is mild enough that I amp up the heat in this ma la oil recipe with crushed red pepper anyway. Feel free to play with these proportions; if you like it very hot, add more crushed red pepper. If you’re just trying Sichuan peppercorns for the first time, scale back on them a little.
I’ll be posting recipes in the next few weeks for Dan Dan Noodles and Mapo Tofu, both of which use this oil. In the meantime, what do you do with this spicy, beautiful elixir? I use it in any spicy Chinese dish, which includes almost all the Chinese food I make. You can stir it into soups, stir-fry with it, toss it with noodles. It’s also great set on the dining table as a stir-in; many Asian restaurants have little clear pots of similar chile oil (usually just hot, not numbing) on every table for just that purpose.
A necessary note about food safety: Flavored oils have been connected to botulin toxin, but only with fresh ingredients. Garlic is the main culprit. An oil such as this, made with dry ingredients (another reason I use powdered ginger instead of fresh chunks) and very hot oil, should pose no danger.