When 11-year-old Fongchong Havighurst first arrived in Nashville from China, she had little use for Craig Havighurst and Taylor Holliday, the couple who had adopted her. She had gone directly from the rural foster family who gave her safe haven—if little affection—for five years, to the urban home of two English-speaking strangers. She was traumatized. “I was too young to understand the idea of adoption or going to live somewhere else,” Fongchong speculates now. “In my picture [in her adoption profile] I look upset.”
Along with Fongchong’s resistance to her new parents, she was just as negative about their food. “She wouldn’t touch my chicken-fried steak,” says Taylor, an Oklahoma native, “let alone a sandwich.”
Fongchong wanted only Chinese food, but not just any Chinese food. It had to be red-hot Sichuan Chinese. Sichuan province is the region near Tibet where masterful dishes like fiery mapo tofu and cashew- and chile-spiked kung pao chicken originated. Sichuan peppercorns, tiny orbs of citrusy flavor that zap the mouth into pleasant numbness, are one of the hallmarks of the cuisine.
Taylor, already a devotee of Sichuan cooking having explored the province as a journalist, saw an opportunity to connect through their shared passion for this incendiary cuisine. Perhaps Sichuan food could be a bridge to bring them closer.
So Taylor replaced her chef’s knives and sauté pans with cleavers and woks, and switched to exclusively Chinese cooking. She soon noticed a pattern; when her daughter ate these dishes, she opened up about her past, sharing stories of her favorite street-food vendors, going to school and tending her foster family’s rice plot.
In the kitchen, mom and daughter found a rapport, honing Sichuan classics like Sesame Noodles in Strange Flavor Sauce, and creating new recipes like Baby Bok Choy in Vinegar Oyster Sauce. Gradually, through nourishment, their relationship evolved. “It wasn’t until I loved and respected them that I would listen to my parents,” Fongchong reflects.
To take her Sichuan cooking project even further, Taylor started a blog about her journey and, by chance, an importer approached her about selling high-quality Sichuan peppercorns on her website. At the time most of the U.S.-bound peppercorns that arrived from China were dried up and lacked a full-powered tingle. But these were fresh and potent.
Readers eagerly bought her peppercorns, so Taylor began selling other Sichuan essentials, such as 3-year-aged chili bean paste and hand-stirred soy sauce. Taylor and Fongchong scouted for new products in China, where Fongchong proved an indispensable translator. Quietly, the Nashville mother- daughter duo became the unlikely source for artisanal Chinese ingredients and themalamarket.com was born.
Restaurateurs came calling. Peter Shelsky, who serves a Sichuan peppercorn-studded bialy at Shelsky’s Brooklyn Bagels, had given up on the typical peppercorns that were available. “They were disappointing.” Then he tasted The Mala Market’s peppercorns: “I was blown away.”
At Seattle’s Sichuan-inspired Plenty of Clouds restaurant, executive chef Travis Post uses The Mala Market’s peppercorns and Sichuan chiles all over the menu. “You can’t find that quality anywhere,” says Post.
Now 21, Fongchong is studying for her English proficiency test and planning to enroll at the university where her dad works. She plans to live in the dorm. “That’s my dream,” she gushes. “I like making new friends.”
At some point, Fongchong wants to spend time in China. “If I could go there and teach English to little kids that would be perfect,” she says with a smile.
On a recent outing to a Sichuan hot-pot restaurant in South Nashville, where diners cook their own ingredients in bubbling broth, mom and daughter gnaw happily on warm duck feet. They seem lighthearted about their differences.
“She adores me,” teases Taylor.
“Oh, we never fight,” Fongchong adds with perfect timing. “We are like best buddies!”
Fongchong looks toward the vast bar of condiments where diners assemble their seasonings. “Hey Mom, let’s go make our sauce,” she suggests, sliding out of the booth. Taylor follows, and they stride off purposefully, mother and daughter, out to share a spicy meal.