Spicy twists to mala - from chicken rice to pizza

Fans of the spicy, tongue-numbing Sichuan flavour can now enjoy it in even more food options, from chicken rice to pizza

It is clear that Singaporeans like it hot, tongue-numbingly hot.

It started with the craze for mala hotpot, then with the trend of mala xiang guo (a stir-fried version of mala hotpot) outlets, which have become a permanent fixture in foodcourts and hawker centres.

And as the love of "ma" (tongue-numbing) and "la" (spicy) flavours takes hold in Singapore, enter the third wave of non-Sichuan mala food.

Think mala flavours for dishes from chicken rice to pizza.

Do not worry about ingredients swimming in a fiery pit of oil filled with dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, as these interesting interpretations are generally less spicy than the conventional mala options.

As Mr Rodney Tang - managing director of RTG Holdings, which runs local bubble tea chain LiHO, Taiwan pizza chain Tino's Pizza Cafe and Gong Yuan Mala Tang, a casual eatery that offers a soup version of mala xiang guo - puts it: "There are plenty of mala xiang guo and mala hotpot outlets everywhere, showing that Singaporeans are receptive to the flavour."

Banking on the mala craze, Mr Tang has opened his second Gong Yuan Mala Tang outlet at Westgate mall in Jurong East and has another slated for next month in Orchard Road. The brand first opened at Heartland Mall in Kovan last year.

At hip foodcourt Makanista at Tampines Mall, the chicken rice stall offers a Mala Chicken Rice, where a housemade mala sauce is added to the poached or roasted chicken.

Makanista's marketing manager Khoo Wei Xin, 27, says: "Since Makanista serves local delights with an interesting twist, we have to serve the quintessential Singaporean favourite - chicken rice, inspired by the flavours of Sichuan.

"It's been interesting to see the rise of the mala trend in Singapore, perhaps for the past two years or so. We wanted to offer something that was a spin-off of mala xiang guo, yet familiar to the local palate."

Other options include mala Irish duck at modern Chinese restaurant Lokkee at Plaza Singapura; and mala crab from Qi - House of Sichuan, a one-Michelin-starred eatery from Hong Kong at Marina Bay Link Mall.

Qi - House of Sichuan head chef Wong Chun Fai's spin on shui zhu yu - braised garoupa fish fillet in chilli oil soup ($40 or $50) - features less oil than the usual options, so diners can drink the fiery soup.

And while restaurant owners believe that the mala madness is here to stay, Si Chuan Dou Hua's executive Sichuan chef Zeng Feng, 52, hopes Singaporeans will discover other flavours of Sichuan cuisine.

He says: "In Singapore and many countries, people continue to equate Sichuan food solely with the 'ma la' flavour perhaps because it is most memorable.

Other flavours deserve a worthy mention, such as garlic and chilli, and Sichuan minced pepper.

"We have noticed more Singaporean diners ordering authentic yet non-spicy Sichuan dishes such as stir-fried French beans with minced meat or crispy rice bubble with sliced pork, demonstrating their knowledge of the depth of Sichuan cuisine."

For modern Chinese diner and bar Zui Hong Lou's head chef Clement Goh, Sichuan cuisine has become a comfort food. Inspired by it, his menu features Chong Qing chicken wings and Szechuan fries. He says: "Sichuan cuisine has so much flavour and character and I love the Chinese spices, herbs and numbing sensation of the Sichuan peppercorn."

Similarly, for Mr Gervor Quek, 35, owner of Ooh, which sells mala potato and cassava chips, it was a love of mala food that inspired his creation of spicy snacks.

He says: "The chips are inspired by a dish at Sichuan restaurant Lao Sichuan, where the potatoes are sliced and fried, and served like la zi ji (mala fried chicken). I tried doing it at home and now I work with a factory to produce the chips.

"Customers have also requested mala fish skin and fried crab stick and I'm working on managing the spice levels for those who like it less or more spicy."

• Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ

New mala spin-offs


What: Mala chips are the new, highly addictive snack that packs a spicy punch. Key ingredients for the potato chips and cassava chips include dried chilli, salt, peppercorn powder, ginger powder, pepper and fennel. Launched by local brand Ooh, they cost $6 for a 95g packet.

Where: Today, Level 2 North Wing, Suntec City Tower 2, 9 Temasek Boulevard

Info: Call 8542-0972, e-mail oohsgp@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/OohSG for updates on the next location


What: Three-month-old vegetarian restaurant Ganglamedo uses ingredients from Tibet as well as Chinese herbs and spices in its cooking. The a la carte menu has a cold appetiser of carrot, radish, enoki and cordyceps flower ($12) that comes tossed in a fragrant mala sauce. Another appetiser, Ya Dong pearl fungus (seasonal price) from Tibet, also has mala spices.

Where: Ganglamedo, 40 Craig Road; open: 11am to 3pm, 6 to 9.30pm daily

Info: Call 6423-9788 or go to www.facebook.com/GanglamedoSG


What: If mala chicken rice sounds like an odd spin on the favourite hawker dish, an easier reference point would be kou shui ji (Sichuan poached chicken with chilli oil). Makanista's chicken rice features chicken topped with a spicy sauce made from chillies, garlic, black vinegar and oil. Prices start at $5.80 for mala chicken rice.

Where: Makanista, 01-42/43/44 Tampines Mall, 4 Tampines Central 5; open: 9am to 10pm (weekdays), 8am to 10pm (weekends and public holidays)

Info: Call 6260-6002 or go to www.facebook.com/MakanistaSG


What: New to the London Fat Duck restaurant chain, this one ($9) has slices of pig's liver in a spicy mala sauce - the perfect complement to its signature roast meats.

Where: London Fat Duck outlets including B2-29 VivoCity, 1 Harbourfront Walk; B1-16/17 Scotts Square, 6 Scotts Road; and B1-76 Raffles City, 252 North Bridge Road; open: 11.30am to 10pm (weekdays), 10am to 10pm (weekends and public holidays)

Info: www.londonfatduck.com.sg


What: Chinese restaurant chain Crystal Jade debuts its mala rice dumpling ($8.80 a piece; exclusive bundle on e-store $24.80 for three, $39.80 for five) for the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival. Pork shoulder and Spanish pork collar pieces are marinated in a blend of Sichuan peppercorns, dried chillies and chilli oil, giving the dumpling a gentle heat and fragrance.

Where: Until June 18 at Crystal Jade outlets, various opening hours; until June 14 on e-store

Info: estore.crystaljade.com


What: Taiwan pizza chain Tino's Pizza Cafe packs a spicy punch with its Spicy Mala Pizza ($17.90 for six-piece Neapolitan, $23.90 for eight-piece, thin-crust Roman). The pizza dough gets a coating of housemade spicy mala sauce and toppings include prawns, chicken meatballs and tuna.

Where: Tino's Pizza Cafe outlets at 01-206 Resorts World Sentosa, 8 Sentosa Gateway; 01-106 Tiong Bahru Plaza, 302 Tiong Bahru Road; and B1-13 The Centrepoint, 176 Orchard Road; various opening hours

Info: www.facebook.com/tinospizzacafesg


What: The recently relaunched modern Chinese diner and bar Zui Hong Lou offers a spicy spin on small plates and snacks. These include the Double Deep-fried Chong Qing Chicken Wings with House Ma La Spices ($10) and Szechuan Fries ($6), which come with a Sichuan barbecue dip.

Where: Zui Hong Lou, 90 Club Street; open: noon to 2.30pm (weekdays), 6pm to 1am (Saturdays, Mondays to Thursdays), 6pm to 2am (Fridays), closed on Sundays

Info: Call 8181-0572 or go to zuihonglou.sg


What: The "mee kia" is actually capellini topped with five prawns ($14.80). The dish looks harmless until you see the Sichuan peppercorns. It is mildly spicy - think of a mala version of aglio olio, but without the chilli padi.

Where: Be My Guest, The Commerze, 1 Irving Place; open: 11.30am to 9pm (weekdays), noon to 9pm (Saturdays), noon to 4pm (Sundays)

Info: Call 9221-4405 or go to www.facebook.com/Bemyguestcafe


What: Ding Xian Hot Pot may be part of Japanese enclave Eat At Seven, but there is a strong Sichuan influence to the menu. Besides the spicy mala soup option for the hotpot, there are also mala side dishes, such as the Mala Fish ($10.80), a deep-fried fish coated in a spice blend which includes chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, black pepper and oyster sauce.

Where: Ding Xian Hot Pot, Eat At Seven, 03-315 Suntec City North Wing, 3 Temasek Boulevard; open: 11.30am to 3pm, 5.30 to 10pm daily

Info: Call 6266-5338 or go to www.facebook.com/dingxianhotpot


What: Modern Chinese restaurant Lokkee by the TungLok Group has a mala Irish duck ($36 for half, $60 for whole), where the roast duck comes with a spicy and fragrant mala sauce.

Where: Lokkee, 03-01 Plaza Singapura, 68 Orchard Road; open: 11am to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 9.30pm daily

Info: Call 6884-4566 or go to www.lokkee.com.sg


These days, making your own mala hotpot at home is no longer as daunting because the hotpot spices and seasoning (above) are readily available at supermarkets.

Chinese department store Yue Hwa Chinese Products has a wide selection available, with more than 20 brands, says its supermarket supervisor Lim Min Yen. It has outlets in locations including Northpoint City, Jurong Point and Chinatown.

Some popular brands include Hai Di Lao, Xiao Fei Yang (Little Sheep), Huang Fei Hong and Bai Wei Zhai. To use, pour the seasoning, spice and oil into a pot, add water and bring to a boil.

The seasoning to make la zi ji (Sichuan mala fried chicken) or to stir-fry your own mala xiang guo is also available.

Alternatively, Si Chuan Dou Hua's executive Sichuan chef Zeng Feng recommends making your own mala sauce from scratch to "replicate authentic flavours".

He says: "One can use a variety of chillies such as dried chilli, chilli powder and fresh chilli, combined with peppercorn variants such as fresh peppercorn, peppercorn powder or peppercorn oil.

"It is important to balance the 'ma' (tongue-numbing) and 'la' (spicy) proportions or the resulting 'mala' flavour will not be well-balanced."

Halal mala xiang guo

Savouring mala xiang guo - a stir-fried version of mala hotpot - is no longer restricted to the Chinatown enclave.

The popular dish, where diners pick ingredients to be fried in a fiery mala sauce, has been available since mala xiang guo stalls started opening in foodcourts and hawker centres a few years ago.

Since 2015, halal mala xiang guo stalls have been emerging. Under foodcourt operator Kopitiam, there are six outlets, including Cantine at Paya Lebar Square, Bagus at Northpoint City and Kopitiam at SingPost Centre.

On the introduction of halal mala xiang guo stalls, Mr Vincent Cheong, Kopitiam's corporate communications manager, says: "There is an increasing demand for a wider variety of halal food and mala xiang guo was identified as one of the popular food types."

Prices start at $1 for 100g of vegetables. Three spice levels are available - mild, normal and extra spicy. While condiments for the mala sauce used to stir-fry the ingredients are typically spices and herbs, the main difference, Mr Cheong says, is the replacement of pork lard oil with margarine oil.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline Spicy twists to mala - from chicken rice to pizza. Subscribe