The Science on Why Mala Numb Your Tongue: It’s Nothing to Do With the Spiciness

Image: Eunice Yeung /

We all eat mala for various reasons.

Some have it because everyone else is eating it, and they’ll feel like an outcast for not walking towards a mala stall during lunch break.

Some have it because they’re perpetually feeling cold, and they’re often the ones who complain about the cold temperature in the office while everyone else is unbuttoning as many buttons as possible.

Most have it simply to have that numbing feel, not knowing that it numbs the tongue and not your feelings.

The burning sensation is akin to an alcohol washing off the taste buds on your tongue, and then lubricating it with Listerine to feel both pain and emptiness.

Image: Imgur

It’s a weird sensation, almost as addictive as alcohol but filled with calories instead of craziness.

So, what exactly causes the numbing, and why doesn’t your typical chilli padi replicate the same sensation?

As your BFF, we’re going to simplify this for you so that you can tell your friends why their tongues are traumatized on your next mala outing.

Before that, a bit of a history.

Mala: Come from Where One?

We know it comes from China, and is made popular by the Chinese in Singapore, but how did it come into existence in the first place?

There’s no historical records of how the dish came about, but the soup was allegedly created by people who made a living towing boats. Back then, the damp and foggy weather had made them feel sick, so they cooked herbs in pots and also threw in Sichuan pepper and ginger to create a soup that made them feel better, and to eliminate the dampness.

People fell in love with it, and mala soup became a staple soup all over China.

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In Singapore, we’d actually had mala soup in hotpot restaurants, but they didn’t gain any recognition until mala xiang guo got into the same pedestal as bubble tea.

And now, to the meat of this article: What causes the numbing sensation?

Sichuan Peppercorn

Some die-hard mala fan would have known this: it’s the Sichuan peppercorn that caused tiny little red ants to take refuge on your tongue.

Image: The Spice House

But why?

For a start, let’s understand how chilli makes your food spicy. The culprit is capsaicin, which produces a burning sensation to any tissue, so it’s essentially an irritant. This means that if you rub chilli on your face, you’ll also feel the burn—through you’ll also be burned by people who saw your crazy act.

When we feel the “burn”, it’s due to our cells reacting to it via a receptor. So, chilli would irritate, say, Receptor A.

However, Sichuan peppercorn is different.

Instead, it works like chilli but our cells react to it via other receptors. These receptors are apparently more “active”, and it doesn’t just feel a “burn”: they kind of “vibrated” very fastly.

And unlike chilli, the receptors would persist to “vibrate” for minutes after the first “burn”, which leads to that sensation that everyone hates but claims to love.

Simply put, chilli merely creates a “burn”, but mala “burns” and your tongue continues to vibrate as it reacts differently.

Image: Giphy

Suffice to say, it’s that “vibration” that got mala viral instead of the burn.

Well, now you know.

Still urging for that mala now?