Sure-fire Suggestions for your spoon
by Kris King
Hot pot, more or less, is a kind of Chinese-style fondue. Diners order an assortment of raw ingredients, which are cooked in a boiling bowl of broth that sits on the table. Hot pot can be difficult to find outside of a major city and can look intimidating to the uninitiated. Fortunately, Northern Virginia has the benefit of being home to chef Chao Seng Liu and his hot pot paradise, Mala Tang.
Liu’s mission is to make authentic Sichuan hot pot accessible to a wider audience while remaining true to its Chinese roots. “Everything [here] is the same as Sichuan in China,” Liu states through nephew, and fellow Mala Tang chef, Jason Fei Liu.
The hot pot process, however, has been streamlined for American sensibilities. Rather than using a large, centralized cooking pot, Mala Tang offers each diner their own individual pot from which to cook. “People here care much more about their health, and they don’t want to share a big pot with the same chopsticks” he estimates.
The first thing one must do is select the cooking broth. There are two kinds to choose from: a mild chicken broth, flavored with green onions or tomatoes, and the spicy mala-style broth, made with a laundry list of over 20 medicinal spices (check NVM online’s “Graze Anatomy: Mala Tang” for a detailed breakdown), but primarily flavored with the numbing spice of Sichuan peppercorns.
According to Liu, beef takes to the mala broth best. He urged first-timers to sample thinly sliced New York Strip, lamb or tender, milk-marinated beef. Meat cooks quickly in the bubbling broth, rarely taking more than 30 seconds to heat all the way through. Seafood takes longer, of course, but most of the goods dished out at Mala Tang are sliced thinly or tenderized to a pulp, drastically reducing cooking times. Because of the quick cooking time, it’s recommended to dip finer meats in the broth until its color changes; letting it sit longer will wreck the delicate texture.
Liu recommends everyone try the Asian vegetables. Because they take longer to cook, vegetables typically absorb more mala spice. After soaking in mala broth, something innocuous like broccoli morphs into 500 florets of death, punishing your mouth with an extreme kick that’s intense but packed with flavor. Even leafy greens like spinach and cabbage that wilt quickly soak up a lot of broth, so be mindful if you aren’t up for the heat.
“We always suggest to our customers pick one veggie and one meat, not a lot,” Liu says.
Once done, you can do any number of things: Eat directly out of the pot, dip morsels in sauce, drop them onto a bed of rice, assemble your own little stew—it’s really a free-for-all once the broth starts boiling.
Mala Tang: 3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381; www.mala-tang.com. To delve deeper into the depths of hot pot, or view a video tutorial of what to order/how to eat while there, visit: www.northernvirginiamagazine.com/gamalatang.