There’s a common saying in China which goes 食在中国，味在四川 (shí zài zhōng guó, wèi zài sì chuān). It kinda hard to translate but the general meaning is that China has the best food and Sichuan has the best flavors. Indeed, the people of Sichuan take a great deal of pride in the variety of flavors they managed to come up with. On top of the 5 regular ones (sour,sweet, bitter, spicy and salty) Sichuan also offers 5 more distinct flavors (some might not sound so tempting): numbing, rotten, fresh, fragrant and smelly. On top of that, two flavors may be combined to create what is known as a ‘weird flavor’ (怪味儿 – guài wèir). Overall, apparently there are more than 20 different flavors.
má là (麻辣) is one of those weird flavors. má refers to the unique semi-numbing sensation caused by Sichuan pepper which is not spicy per se. The actual spiciness (là) comes from the good old chili peppers which we all know and love (or not…).
Now that we know what málà is, we can talk about mala tang. The word tàng (烫) means ‘boiling hot’ and mala tang is a kind of spicy sauce or soup in which one may cook vegetables, meat and other things in order to give them the málà flavor. The soup itself is dark red. Besides Sichuan peppercorns and red chili peppers it also contains your garden variety of spices and vegetables like ginger, garlic, clove, star anise sugar, salt and more.
In Sichuan, where malatang is originally from, it usually comes as a type of flavor in hotpot restaurants. But in many other places around China, particularly in Beijing, it is more often found at malatang street stands or small malatang restaurants. Like the roasted sweet potato, malatang is also an effective way to fight the cold of Northeast China.
The ordering process in a malatang stand is pretty straight forward and you don’t have to be fluent in Mandarin to make it happen. You can simply point at the things you see and want. This is especially true when it comes to vegetables, but what about the times you are not exactly sure what it is that you are looking at? No worries, here’s a short Chinese English menu with some common malatang options. It will help you differentiate between what’s veggie and what’s not and between the different kinds of tofu and meatballs.
It’s self explanatory for the most part but a couple of things might require further description are:
- Veggie Meatballs – shredded carrot with flour and starch rolled up into ball and then deep fried.
- Wood Ear – a kind of edible mushroom which grows on the bark of trees.
- Duck Blood – Exactly what it sounds. It’s a kind of aspic made of coagulated or jellified duck blood cut into cubes.
- Majiang – Sesame Paste very similar to the Middle Eastern tahini sauce only it’s slightly more thick and concentrated.
Obviously the price is not fixed and changes from place to place. The price for a single portion of every item (usually a skewer) is about 1-3 yuan. Vegetables and tofu are generally cheaper and cost 1 yuan, meat and seafood are more expensive and cost 2-3 yuan for a single portion. The bowl below with broccoli, tofu, quail eggs, mushroom and veggie meatballs was 8 yuan, the sesame paste is free of charge.