Mala Tang: 3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381; www.mala-tang.com
1. Sichuan peppercorns
2. Dried ginger
4. Star Anise
6. Dried chilies
7. Tsaoko fruit (cao guo)
8. Grass shoots
9. Fennel seeds
11. White cardamom seed (bai dou kou)
12. Goji berries
15. Dried dates
18. Mala broth
It was on a hot summer evening in New York City when Chinese hot pot first terrified me. In a small corner restaurant with steamed over windows, sweating diners hunched over a boiling cauldron of deep red broth, eagerly dumping meats, vegetables and all sorts of madness into the chile-loaded liquid.
I ordered the chicken and broccoli.
When I finally took the plunge some time later, ordering a random assortment of proteins and vegetables, my anxiety melted away almost immediately. Not only did I find that hot pot was essentially idiot-proof, I also found that it’s extremely delicious, packed with a vibrant, numbing spice that’s simultaneously punishing and addictive.
While many hot pot restaurants allow you to order dueling broths, splitting the two in a divided pot, Mala Tang forces you to decide. And while the mala broth looks like it could burn the hairs off your arms just by looking at it, the tingly spice from the peppercorns is essential to the hot pot experience. Not spicy like a chili pepper or a black peppercorn, the Sichuan peppercorn has a unique numbing quality—so much so that it’s often used to dull dental pain. One bite of a whole Sichuan peppercorn and you can kiss the feeling in your tongue goodbye for a solid 10 minutes. This mild numbing effect cuts the heavy heat, which makes the broth spicy, but not unbearable. When asked his favorite aspect of eating hot pot, Mala Tang chef Jason Fei Liu, who led us through our hot pot tutorial, gave a laugh: “The sweat!”
As Fei Liu guided us along, it became clear that one-upsmanship plays an important role in the hot pot experience. He goaded us into drinking more, trying new dishes or eating just one more mala-soaked floret of broccoli. Every five minutes or so, a look of mischief would cross his face before he ducked into the kitchen to grab something for us to try.
First came the offal, which is a popular ingredient for Chinese hot pot—in China. Head chef/founder Chao Seng Liu encourages his diners to try out more the more exotic dishes on the menu, even allowing them to sample before committing to a full order. We, on the other hand, did not have that privilege, as Fei Liu brought out two full plates of beef tripe and pork intestine for us to eat. Of the two, beef tripe had the milder flavor with an interesting, crunchy texture, while the pork intestine packed a pungent porcine punch that I could have done without. Neither looks particularly pleasant, but that did not stop us from eating all of it.
Whether it’s because of the heat from the burner, or the spice from the broth, there’s something about drinking an unreasonable amount of cold, cheap Chinese beers that matches amazingly well with hot pot. After pumping us full of offal, Fei Liu also broke out the booze, doling out pints of Tsing Tao and toasting “Gan Bei”—a traditional Chinese toast that prompts everyone at the table to pound back their entire glass.
Before long, that look crossed our host’s face again, and he scurried back to his office to grab his personal stash of Baijiu, a high octane Chinese rotgut distilled from sorghum that tastes kind of rubbing alcohol mixed with a bag of boiled down fruit snacks.
It was pretty good in a weird sort of way that defies explanation.
Along with hot pot, Mala Tang also offers a selection of street foods called Xiaochi on their menu, which Fei Liu says goes well with hot pot. It’s Fei Liu who’s primarily in charge of the Xiaochi menu, and he told us that one of the reasons they added the items to the menu is that many of them are difficult to find in America. “We do xiaochi because we want people to enjoy more small food here. Not all restaurants in this area, especially Chinese food restaurants, they don’t offer a lot of xiaochi,” said Fei Liu. “We do this because … it’s a good way to give [Americans] a shot to try.”
In the kitchen, Liu walked us through the process of making one of the more exotic Xiaochi items: mung bean noodles. The chef made the noodles by combining mung bean starch with water to make a slurry that, when cooled, became a opaque mass of jelly. Liu broke out his large, sharp knife and with a few quick cuts created a pile of thick, slippery noodles that are served cold. According to Fei Liu, the trickiest part of making mung bean noodle is actually the sauce, which is black bean-based and mixed with ginger, Chinese vinegar and red chile oil.
By the end of our meal of Xiaochi, hot pot and more alcohol than I would care to disclose, Fei Liu served us a cold pumpkin soup, which immediately doused the lingering heat in my mouth.
Sitting back in his chair, clearly satisfied with the meal, the young chef opened up about the goal for his and his uncle’s restaurant, “I really just want people to feel like they’re in China when they’re here.”