Welcome to The Mala Project
I’m Taylor Holliday and The Mala Project is a challenge to myself to move beyond my usual Chinese recipes and cook my way through my prized collection of Sichuan (Szechuan) cookbooks—the rare, the out-of-print, and the printed-only-in-China—which are full of food the way it’s made in Chengdu, my favorite place to eat. I call it The Mala Project after the defining tastes of Sichuan: má, numbing Sichuan pepper, and là, spicy chili pepper. I think it’s a fitting title for a blog about chasing the challenge and thrill of mala in both food and life.
My major inspiration is Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, a project of the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association that was published in China in 2010. It was years in the making and includes “traditional dishes, dishes innovated after China’s adoption of the policy of ‘opening-up and reform,’ dishes popular in recent years, dishes prepared in five-star hotels, and dishes made at home or in small rural restaurants.” After seeking the public’s input and reaching consensus on the all-time best 180 Sichuan dishes, a battalion of chefs tested, standardized and translated the recipes to “make it easy for readers at home and abroad to try cooking the dishes by themselves.”
The problem is, not many readers outside Chengdu got that chance, since the book was never available anywhere outside China. I received it as a gift shortly after it was published from the director of the culinary university’s international programs. He was my partner in bringing travelers to the school for cooking classes and also became a good friend, as have many people in Chengdu through that venture. I was thrilled to have the book, but intimidated by cooking from it. It’s a gorgeous cookbook complete with hard case slipcover and large, lush photos of every dish, but the measurements are all in grams and the instructions are often a bit too brief and cryptic for easy use.
The other two books I’ll tackle date from the era when Sichuan was romanized as Szechwan and are both out of print. As far as I can tell, The Good Food of Szechwan: Down-to-Earth Chinese Cooking was the first Sichuan cookbook in English. Published in Japan in 1974, it was written by Robert A. Delfs, an American who studied Chinese in Taiwan in the early 1970s. He appears to have learned Sichuan cooking from frequenting Taipai’s Sichuan restaurants and befriending their chefs. Of course this makes sense in 1970, when many of the best practicing Sichuan chefs lived in Taiwan, having fled mainland China with the Nationalists after the Communist takeover, when professional cooking and private restaurants began to be seen as enemies of the people.
Shortly after that book was published, in 1976 Harper & Row published Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, written by Chiang Jung-feng and John and Ellen Schrecker. The Schreckers also were in Taipai in the early 1970s, where Mrs. Chiang was their cook. She had grown up in Chengdu and moved to Taiwan with her soldier husband. When the Schreckers returned to New Jersey, Mrs. Chiang came with them as their cook, and together the three of them wrote this amazing cookbook. Ahead of their time, they wrote, “This is neither a translation of a Chinese cookbook nor an adaptation of Chinese cooking for American tastes. We have undertaken to provide recipes that will allow the American cook to produce the zhen wer, the true taste of Chinese food.” (Coincidentally, the Schreckers were friends of Raymond Sokolov, my boss and mentor at the WSJ many years later. When Ray was the restaurant critic of The New York Times in the early 1970s, he was one of the first to champion the new wave of regional-Chinese restaurants, having been introduced to non-Cantonese Chinese food by the Schreckers; he’d eaten Mrs. Chiang’s food and even wrote the dust-jacket blurb for their cookbook.)
That was about it for Sichuan cookbooks until 2001, when Fuchsia Dunlop’s superlative Land of Plenty was published. It was the first English-language Sichuan cookbook based on research done in Sichuan itself, where Dunlop, a Brit, studied at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the 1990s. I leave it out of The Mala Project because this book is still very much in print and everyone should just buy a copy, particularly for the history of the cuisine.
And that brings me back to the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English (which Dunlop helped review before publication). It is, I believe, the first Sichuan cookbook written and translated into English by Sichuan chefs and academics. As such, it goes where the others fear to tread, caring not if we can easily access ingredients such as duck jaws, yak paws and water buffalo scalp, and hesitating not to load the occasional recipe with mounds of chili flakes. But that’s what makes it so exciting and so real. Nothing has been adapted to the foreign palate, and it therefore includes recipes for dishes that are as close as you can get to Chengdu short of a plane ride.
My goal is to adapt the most enticing and intriguing recipes from all these books, updating the older publications to include authentic Sichuan ingredients now available in the U.S. and using as few substitutions as possible for the book produced in Sichuan—something that years of shopping in America’s Chinese markets has taught me is mostly doable in 2014.
I’ll also include recipes I’ve learned directly from friends and colleagues in Chengdu. And sometimes I’ll give myself the freedom to stray from the Chengdu Challenge to include other authentic Chinese recipes that have kept my family afloat, as well as reports on our frequent Chinese-food travels in both the U.S. and China.
My Chinese/American* Family
Fong Chong joined our family in 2011 when she was 11 years old. I have many reasons for choosing adoption over a biological kid for our only child, but I have only one reason for choosing a Chinese child over any other one: the food. I admit it. I chose a Chinese daughter because I love Chinese cuisine. Even so, I never dreamed that Chinese food would become such a defining part of our life together—the core of my daughter’s identity and happiness, the obsessive goal that fills my every free minute, and the bond through which we fully attached as mother and daughter.
But it hasn’t been easy. As a new mom I struggle with the relentless necessity to get something on the table for dinner every night and in her lunchbox every day, further stymied by it needing to be home-cooked Chinese, or at least Asian, a majority of the time, since my immigrant daughter truly dislikes most Western food, including American-Chinese. And on top of that, there’s the challenge of having my cooking measure up to FC’s memories of her foster family’s elaborate daily meals in China: her Ayi’s and Popo’s food, which they spent hours per day growing, preparing and cooking the old-school way in rural Guangdong.
Fong Chong freely admits that food was the only thing that was better about her life in China than her life in America, but meals are an extremely powerful, three-times-a-day reminder of something she loved in her previous life. And that’s not going to change. So the challenge remains. Lucky for me, however, is the fact that she rarely got the treat of spicy food in Guangzhou, and like her new mom, she absolutely adores the Sichuan-pepper tingle and the chili heat of Sichuan málà.
So for the foreseeable future, the challenge will take the form of The Mala Project, allowing/forcing me to learn to cook—and her to eat—a much larger variety of Chinese dishes than we would without the challenge and, hopefully, reap many more benefits to our stomachs and souls.
I came to my obsession with Sichuan food through journalism, having been sent to Chengdu to write about its food culture in 2007. I never wrote that particular story because instead I fell in love with the cuisine and the people I met there and decided to make it an ongoing part of my life by sending other travelers to experience the same insider cooking and eating that I had as a journalist. Lotus Culinary Travel was the first and is still the only dedicated culinary tour company in Sichuan, thanks to my amazing Chengdu-native partner and guides who make everyone feel like family when they visit the Perfect Metropolis.
Before I segued into the travel field, I wrote about culinary travel for The New York Times and was an arts and culture editor/writer at The Wall Street Journal for a decade. I honed my eating chops while living in Europe for three years and, even more so, when I lived in Queens, New York. Since 2003 I have lived in Nashville with my Americana music writer/producer husband Craig, enjoying my fill of “hot chicken,” bourbon and other Southern specialties while I teach myself to cook Chinese with his eager assistance and unfailing support—even if he does prefer a little less mala than Fong Chong and mom.
* We’re not a Chinese-American family. We’re Chinese part of the time, American part of the time, depending on who’s talking and what we’re eating. We’re Chinese/American.