Japan is a country known for its fashionable flavours that often come in quick succession, but one taste sensation in particular has been generating a buzz in this island nation for a relatively long period of time.

Japan taste fads 2019

‘Tingly numbing’ may have emerged as a new taste, with the potential to become part of the everyday flavour experience, such as umami, but ‘tingly numbing’ is no stranger in the Sichuan region of China where it is said to have originated.

The Chinese pepper known as ‘hua jiao’ creates this numbing effect. Mala is a traditional Sichuan flavour, described as numbing and spicy. In many authentic Sichuan dishes, Mala is the signature flavour.

In Japan, however, Sichuan menus have tended to be reworked to appeal to the local palate, focussing on spicy taste, without the numbing effect of Chinese pepper, reflecting the Japanese consumers’ lack of familiarity with the intense sensation.

So why is this traditional Sichuan taste now booming in Japan?

Combining numbness with spiciness can create a strong taste, forming the base of the attraction. Japanese consumers are increasingly seeking strong flavours and sensations. The so-called “coriander boom” peaked around 2016, in which South East Asian-inspired dishes with plentiful coriander leaves or sauce became popular. The flavour of coriander proved divisive, engendering reactions of either love or hate, but this strong herb stood out in relatively mild and subtle Japanese cuisine.

The Mala movement emerged as the successor to the coriander boom. According to a senior researcher, Mari Ariki, from Hot Pepper Gourmet of Recruit Life Style, stressful lifestyles in Japan are leading people to seek a strong sensation in their food.

Food manufacturers and the foodservice industry is aiming to capitalise on this Mala boom, launching new products based on Chinese peppers. S&B Foods, Japan’s major spice manufacturer, has been continuously launching new products. Earlier this year, it released ground Chinese pepper as well as Japanese pepper, to encourage home use. It has also launched a bolognese pasta sauce, featuring a Mala flavour to reach inquisitive Japanese consumers. Meanwhile, Japanese fast-food burger chain Mos has introduced a new Mala Mos burger.

During the hotter months, spicy food tends to gain traction for sweating away the heat. In recent years, Japan has been facing fiercely hot summers, thus the Mala flavour boom is expected to do well as this new sensory experience fits well in Japanese menus at home and away.