It Hurts So Good: Savoring MáLà Project’s Potent Spices

By Annie Wu, Epoch Times
March 3, 2016 12:49 pm Last Updated: March 3, 2016 12:49 pm

As people who love spicy food already know, a little pain is a small price to pay for something delicious.

The “málà” in MáLà Project’s name refers to the numbing, spicy flavor that overcomes your senses after eating food seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns. Your lips pulsate with heat, your tongue tingles, and your nose starts to burn.

At MáLà Project, located in the East Village, Sichuan peppercorns are not the only ingredients that make the restaurant’s signature dish, the dry pot, so potent. First invented in Chongqing, China (a southwestern city neighboring Sichuan Province), the dry pot is a fiery stir-fry of whatever meats, vegetables, and seafood items you fancy; and whatever you choose is only a vehicle for soaking up the great mixture of herbs and spices thrown into the dish.

Chef Qilong Zhao fires up the wok for MáLà Dry Pot. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Chef Qilong Zhao fires up the wok for MáLà Dry Pot. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Probably anything would taste good in that toss-up of chili oil and pepper, cilantro, sesame seeds, ginger, garlic, bay leaves, and other herbs—it’s fragrant, peppery, and herbal simultaneously. I chose pillowy pieces of fish filet, glass noodles, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, and sliced lamb for a variety of textures to absorb the fragrant chili oil.

The MáLà Dry Pot with lamb, glass noodles, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, and fish filet. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The MáLà Dry Pot with lamb, glass noodles, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, and fish filet. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

But MáLà Project also offers more adventurous options, like chicken gizzard, pig intestines, and lamb kidney. For dinner, you can pick however many you want, sold à la carte; for lunch, you can choose three, four, or five items for $9, $11, and $14, respectively.

Some of the herbs you’ll dig out may be entirely unfamiliar: tiny white pods and pointy seeds resembling dates. It turns out they are variants of cardamom native to southwestern China. MáLà Project owner Amelie Kang gets these prized ingredients from friends and family who bring them back from China.

Authentic flavors are important for Kang, who recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and opened MáLà Project in January. She grew up in Beijing, where she learned to love the dry pot dish; she ate it at least once a week.

“There’s nowhere that treats this dish correctly in New York and I miss the flavor too much,” Kang said in an email. So she opened her own dry pot-focused restaurant, with the intent to introduce New Yorkers to real Chinese flavors, while “bringing back a lot of the dishes that are forgotten even by Chinese people, to awaken some memory and association with home and childhood,” she said.

One such nostalgic dish is the Liangfen of Happy Tears—mung bean jelly (or “liangfen”) dressed in housemade chili sauce and aged vinegar. Kang explains that the Chinese name for the dish translates to “liangfen for the heartbroken,” because people who ate this dish would tear up from the spiciness. She aptly named it “happy tears” instead. The intense sour of the vinegar, mixed with the garlicky notes in the chili sauce, creates a fantastic synergy of flavor. The slippery threads of jelly will be gone before you know it, even if eating it involves some sniffling and tearing up ($7).

Liangfen of Happy Tears: Mung bean jelly pieces in chili oil. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Liangfen of Happy Tears: Mung bean jelly pieces in chili oil. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

For a milder dish to cool down your palate, try the Spinach Salad with Chili Sesame Paste, a dish originally from the Zhejiang region near Shanghai. Crunchy spinach is dressed with a nutty sauce of peanuts and sesame, and garnished with strawberry Pocky sticks for a touch of whimsy ($8).

Spinach Salad With Chili Sesame Paste, garnished with whimsical strawberry Pocky. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Spinach Salad With Chili Sesame Paste, garnished with whimsical strawberry Pocky. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

MáLà Project
122 First Ave. (between East Seventh Street & St. Mark’s Place)
212-353-8880
malaproject.nyc

Hours:

Sunday–Wednesday
Noon–4 p.m., 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Thursday–Saturday
Noon–4 p.m., 5 p.m.–midnight