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VOL. 43 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 30, 2019

Altered states from the comfort of home far away

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Spicy hot food from the Sichuan province of China gave Nashvillian Taylor Holliday a new career.  

-- Photo Provided

Nothing quite prepares you for the first time you try a really fresh and potent Sichuan peppercorn, because there’s nothing else in the world quite like it.

To call it electrifying is not just the hyperbole of food porn propaganda. It’s actually grounded in recent scientific studies that attempt to explain the biochemical mechanism of sanshool, the active ingredient in Sichaun peppercorns.

I got here, to this place of vibratory tingling as my lips and tongue seem to be both swelling and numbing thanks to Taylor Holliday, a Nashville-based journalist and former editor from The Wall Street Journal who is making a new career out of peddling this glorious sensory experience.

Holliday is dedicated to importing the best and freshest ingredients she can find from the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, home to the cuisine famed for the hand-in-glove combination of numbing peppercorns and searing chili peppers, a sensory pair known as málà.

Taylor Holliday, right, and her daughter.

Holliday was already a seasoned traveler to China when she and her husband, fellow journalist and music producer Craig Havighurst, adopted an 11-year-old Chinese girl named Fong Chong from Guangzhou, a Cantonese city with decidedly non-spicy food. It turned out, though, that Fong Chong found warmth and comfort from the heat of Sichuan dishes her new mother prepared to ease the transition to life in Nashville.

Armed with a collection of cookbooks found during her travels, Holliday began a blog to chronicle her efforts to comfort her daughter with authentic Chinese cooking while dismantling the culinary roadblocks to recreating the flavors they both loved and longed for. Thus was born The Málà.Project.

First, of course, came the challenge of sourcing the right ingredients. While some things could be found on the shelves of Asian markets like K&S on Charlotte Pike and Nolensville Road, many were of poor quality or had suffered from such a long journey, from China to warehouse to later distribution, that much of their punch had been lost in transit.

Second, Holliday knew method was as important as the raw materials, so she studied at the hand of masters at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu, where it was quickly apparent that simple wok-driven dishes were anything but simplistic.

Finally, armed with a blog that garnered immediate attention among the food media cognoscenti, along with the simple fact that her Chinese dishes were all that her now teen daughter was willing to eat, Holliday launched The Málà Market (www.themalamarket.com), an online clearinghouse for the ingredients she wanted but could not find.

Sitting with Holliday as she talks about this journey, you see her eyes widen with genuine marvel when she speaks about discovering a company that has been hand making Pixian doubanjiang – a fermented bean and chili paste – since 1688.

“You couldn’t find this super-aged product in the United States until now. They still hand stir it in ceramic crocks,” she says, beaming with the pride of a gastronaut that discovers an artisanal food that scoffs at the idea of stainless steel production methods.

Chinese cuisine from Sichuan includes lots of hot peppers and fresh peppercorns. 

You also feel her logistical pain as she recounts the vagaries of learning import-export regulations and the uncertainty of the current tariff wars. It’s a delicate dance of balancing import volume to keep products fresh while maintaining an affordable price point. So far, as devotees of Sichuan ingredients continue to discover the market, Holliday’s products sell at clip that allows her to bring in more with each trans-Pacific shipment.

Her catalogue also continues to grow as her visits to China yield new and deeper relationships with producers and wholesalers. Holliday hopes to add items like her favorite Chinese soy sauce and a true Chinese sesame paste, “Not tahini!” she adds, saying that this paste is neither heat nor chemical treated so it maintains its deep, nutty flavor.

But it’s the peppercorns that truly bring her mission home, to truly understand Holliday’s proselytizing, as we both lament the dearth of great Chinese food in Nashville. Our conversation turns to the classic Sichuan dish Mapo Doufu, the best tofu dish on the planet, that shimmers with depth and is a showcase for many of The Málà Projects ingredients.

Armed with peppercorns, bean paste and chili flakes, all borne from Sichuan soil, I make the dish at home. It thrills and yes, it is electrifying in the way only fresh peppercorns can make it, numbing the heat of the chilis while coaxing you to eat more and more, sweating and smiling in some weird Faustian pact.

Just as chili’s capsaicin tricks the tongue into feeling heat, sanshool makes tiny pricks across the lips in ways that conjure small electric shocks, like touching your tongue to a small transistor battery to see if it still has juice. In a paper published in the journal of The Royal Society for the biological sciences, Nobuhiru Nagura measured that sensation at around 50 Hz. Shocking, I know.

Simply put, for the first time, I came to understand Sichuan cuisine as it’s meant to be enjoyed, and now, thanks to Taylor Holliday, we all can with a simple click of the mouse.

And for the record, Fong Chong has branched out a little, finding common ground in some picante Mexican dishes, but Holliday manages to cook something from the Sichuan canon at least four or five nights a week. And after having tried a few recipes found on Holliday’s website, who can blame the girl?

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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