How to Tame the Fire of Sichuan Food with Beer

December 03, 2018

By Diana Hubbell, December 03, 2018

The delicate dance of “ma,” or the numbing sensation from tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, and “la,” from lashings of capsicum, is both what makes Sichuan cuisine so addictive and so tricky to pair with drinks. Sichuan dishes call for a beer that can stand up to big, bold flavors as well as a serious wallop of heat.

That’s exactly what you’ll find at Málà Project, a contemporary Chinese restaurant in New York’s East Village, where it’s not uncommon to see first-time diners sweating, gasping for air, and chugging the closest beverage. Though the menu is extensive, the one item on almost every table is the dry hot pot, a customizable bowl loaded up with everything from chicken wings and beef tenderloin to duck tongues, frogs, pig kidneys, and rooster testicles (they’re tastier than you might expect). Thought to have originated in Chongqing, the communal dish is ideal for groups and popular among young Chinese urbanites.

When Amelie Kang, a native of Tangshan who lived in Beijing before moving to New York, launched the restaurant concept in 2016, she refused to dumb down the flavors or the heat levels of the food she loved. Woe be it to the novice who orders a “super spicy” bowl with an avalanche of dried chilies. Beneath the initial incendiary blast, however, lies a remarkable depth of flavor that comes from more than two dozen spices, including the requisite green peppercorns, nutmeg, and star anise, as well as ingredients with purported curative properties including female ginseng and amomum.

While picking the right beer to match with dry hot pot or other Sichuanese classics might seem daunting, Kang assures us that it’s not so tough with the right pointers. We stopped by for a chat about Beijing’s growing craft brewing scene, Chinese drinking culture, and which beers can take the heat.

Sichuan cuisine is just so complex. Where do I even start?
I think a lot of Sichuan dishes have a similar flavor profile—there’s still an incredible diversity, of course, but the same kinds of beers tend to work with all of them. If you look at Chinese beers, they tend to be crisp, low in alcohol, and easy to drink. They’re intended to be chuggable.

Sure, because if someone proposes a toast, it’s rude not to drain your glass, right?
We use those 8 oz. cups and you pretty much have to drink the whole thing.

So what’s your go-to?
My personal favorite would be a pilsner. It’s a safe choice since it’s mellow and there are florals and fruitiness that tend to be accepted even by new beer drinkers. A lot of our customers, especially young Chinese women, aren’t necessarily big beer drinkers, so we recommend they start with pilsners like Qingdao.

Qingdao’s so well-known it would seem like an omission not to have it. Would you ever want to stock options from smaller Chinese craft microbreweries?
Definitely. Qingdao is always the biggest seller. We’ve had that since day one and we’re going to continue to carry it. As more Chinese beer becomes available here, we’ll carry more of it.

What’s the brewing scene like back in Beijing?
The last time I went back, I sampled some Chinese craft beer. I tried some from Chengdu that was really good. Beijing has this one craft brewery that’s really popular, 京A Brewing Co. You can definitely see a lot of Chinese craft beers, they just haven’t made their way over here. Some brewers are using interesting spices like orange peels. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, more breweries start playing around with different Sichuan ingredients.

Are there any unexpected beer pairings that you’d recommend?
Anything with a touch of fruitiness that can cut through the spice is going to be a good choice. Sour beer requires a certain palate to appreciate and not everyone enjoys it. If you do though, that will toadd a whole other level of complexity. I’d recommend Victory Brewing Company’s Sour Monkey.

What about ciders?
Ciders can definitely work. We had an apple cider on the menu and now we’ve swapped it for an Original Sin Pear Cider. It’s not too sweet—more on the dry, acidic side.

What tends to get ordered the most at your restaurant?
I think anything local is great. For us, it’s less about the taste and it’s more about the brands of the beer. We don’t have a huge selection. We have about six or seven beers and all of them work well with our food. We’ve found beers from Brooklyn are always big sellers. We’re trying to push this one beer called Toast Ale. It’s a British company and they make their beer with recycled bread. We liked their concept, and people tend to support that, so that’s been really popular as well.

What kinds of beers would you tend to avoid?
Personally, I wouldn’t go with anything that has really overwhelming spice notes—so skip the pumpkin beer with cinnamon. I would be careful with the IPAs. If it’s too bitter or too hoppy, I don’t think it would work well with the Sichuan peppercorns. That’s just for Sichuan food, though. If you go north to Beijing, the food is much mellower.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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