Similarly at Mala Flavours by Formosa Delights located at Food Republic (Parkway Parade), its big boss, Mr Liu, and his Taiwanese team took the time to understand his customers in the heartlands in order to cater to their taste buds. 

For example, he says, Sichuan experiences colder climates in general, so one can afford to have more ‘ma’ (numbness) in the dish. The ‘ma’ generates heat in the body that’s necessary for staying warm. Singaporeans, however, don’t take to ‘ma’ that well, though we are huge fans of ‘la’ (heat; spice). 

Echoing Jeffrey’s take on how different demographics in each area affect the taste of the final ma la xiang guo, he shares, “For this outlet in Parkway Parade, not many people can take ‘la’, because there is an older crowd. But in Clementi, with a younger crowd, they tend to handle more ‘la’.”

Like Jeffrey, Mr Liu shares that his ma la xiang guo recipe has gone through “many rounds of stringent food tasting to ensure quality”. Some stalls use a sauce that requires Chinese medicinal herbs, such as fennel seeds (茴香) and zi cao (紫草), and so that it can ‘repair’ and detoxify the body, but all stalls are inevitably different in their approach. 

What about your oil? I ask, remembering Jeffrey’s quip that oil is the underrated—and perhaps most important—ingredient. 

“Add butter to make it fragrant,” Mr Liu says. “Regular vegetable oil is not as fragrant.” 

In this age, ‘authenticity’ is a word carelessly thrown around, as though assimilation or ‘fusion’ instantly reduces the quality of any cuisine. But the beauty of food, like culture, is that it’s ever-changing. So it seems that one of the most pertinent factors in creating a successful ma la xiang guo is being able to cater to Singaporean taste buds and the climate, without completely abandoning the Sichuan flavour. 

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