It’s common to walk through Chinatown and see long lines of people waiting for ramen or dumplings, but lately I’ve seen more and more lines forming for malatang, a relatively new street food obsession in the West.
Malatang has its origins in the Sichuan region of China and became popular in other areas of the country around 2010, when more stalls serving the fiery dish began popping up. Since then it’s spread internationally. Translating to “spicy, numbing soup”, malatang is named for mala sauce, a key ingredient of the dish, which is heavy on Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies.
Some restaurants in Australia refer to it as hotpot, but this isn't the hotpot most of us are familiar with where you sit around a boiling cauldron of stock for three hours, fishing for your lost meatball. This is the convenient, express version that involves getting a bowl to yourself, picking your own ingredients and paying by weight, typically at around $3 per 100 grams.
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Getting started is simple. Take a bowl and a pair of tongs, then move along the open fridge and select your ingredients. Weigh your bowl, then choose your broth and spice level. Your selection is then prepared by kitchen staff and ready in minutes.
You’ll find a wide range of ingredients to choose from in the open fridge – at some eateries it’ll be upwards of 100 choices. There’ll always be a variety of fresh noodles as well as vegetables (mushrooms, water spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, lotus root, bean shoots), seafood (squid, fish, pipis, prawns, mussels, squid, scallops), sliced meat (usually beef and lamb, sometimes pork), bean curd, fishballs, fish cakes, meatballs and more. Some spots might offer more adventurous but no less tasty options such as blood pudding, spam and tripe.
This is half the fun – you’re the chef and you get to build your own bowl. My tips? Look for the dried knife-cut noodles (dāo xiāo miàn), which are wide, wavy and have a great texture. Avoid thin vermicelli, which can soak up too much of the liquid, making your soup too swampy. Adding sliced lamb gives the broth extra depth and a meatier flavour. Don’t go too hard on a single ingredient – the best bowls are the ones that mix a handful of different ingredients, each one adding a new layer of flavour. And much like going to the supermarket on an empty stomach is dangerous, the same concept applies here. Some restraint is required or you might end up with a bowl meant for two.
Dragon Hot Pot opened on Russell Street, Melbourne, in mid-2017. The small 24-hour spot was one of the first dedicated malatang shops to open in the city and has seen some long queues. But it’s launched branches in Box Hill, QV, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, somewhat alleviating those lines.
Dragon Hot Pot director Louis Kuo tells me the restaurant’s original spicy broth is made with a combination of beef and pork bones. It’s simmered for more than 12 hours until the marrow is extracted, giving it a pale, creamy consistency, then the chefs add a truckload of dried chilli and Sichuan peppercorns to achieve a tongue-numbing level of spice. The broth is layered with garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and a myriad of other secret herbs and spices, and the resulting soup is aromatic and rich.
At most malatang restaurants the level of spice can be adjusted, and other styles of broth are usually available. You might find a creamy sesame broth, a soul-warming preserved-vegetable broth, or a plain beef bone broth (the latter, at Dragon Hot Pot, holds off on the spice). Some restaurants also offer a “dry” version (málà xiāng guō), where ingredients are stir-fried with the same herbs and spices that would normally go into the soup. It’s served with a small bowl of steamed rice.
Here are some of the best spots to eat Malatang around Australia: