Hello winter. Sydney seemed to go from a stretched-out summer to bone-chilling winter in an instant. The cure? Hot pot. Specifically malatang. Don't know what this is? It's a street food-style hot pot that originated in Sichuan but has become increasingly popular in Beijing. Mala means hot and numbing, the sensation you get from Sichuan peppercorns. Tang means boiling hot. If anything is going to warm you up on an icy cold evening, it's this. Trust me.
Most of us are familiar with hot pot or steamboat, where everyone gathers around a table and cooks meat, vegetables and seafood in a communal pot of clear stock in the middle. Malatang is a heavier and spicier soup. Malatang stalls go a step further, allowing you to choose what you want and then cooking it for you. No need to shop! No need to cook! Win win.
Self-serve hot pot ingredients for malatang hot and numbing soup
Malatang stalls have popped up in Chinatown food courts Eating World (next to Gumshara) and in Dixon House Food Court. Neither offer much in the way of instructions for newcomers.
We join the chaos inside the lurid neon delight that is Dixon House Food Court. I have a sentimental love for this hidden food court with its harsh lighting, dated decor and the constant call of orders from the sizzling stall in the corner ("Number forty twoooooo....... number forty twoooooooo").
Bean curd sheets
So here's the deal for malatang. Join the queue (there's always one). Grab a stainless steel bowl and a set of tongs. Shuffle down the line and add to the bowl whatever takes your fancy.
Lotus roots and bamboo shoots
The smorgasbord includes bean curd sheets, lotus roots and bamboo shoots...
all kinds of exotic mushrooms...
Konjac or shirataki noodles made from elephant yam
a plethora of noodles...
Fish balls and fish cakes
a protein lover's delight of fishcakes...
Meat balls, fish balls, fish cakes, tofu puffs and spam
plus hunks of Spam.
Instant noodles, seafood sticks and crab balls
Wet noodles are along the bottom (like the almost-zero calorie shirataki noodle). Dry noodles, including vermicelli and two-minute noodles, line the top shelf.
Don't forget your greens. And take twice as much as you think you need. Each handful will shrink down to almost nothing after it's cooked.
Pay for your hotpot ingredients by weight
Your bowl is then weighed for payment, costed at $24 per kilogram. It's easy to get carried away so try and rope in a few mates to share. You can always have a multi-course meal from different stalls around the food court. Our malatang bowl came to about $17. Don't worry. You don't have to pay for the soup.
At the counter they'll ask if you want slices of frozen beef for $2.50 per serve. You can also request Harbin sausages - housemade and only available behind the counter.
Black fungus, lotus roots, bamboo shoots and sweet potato slices
You'll be given a fancy keyring with your order number on the tag. It only takes the kitchen a few minutes for them to cook your ingredients in the soup, but depending on the backlog, you may have to wait ten to fifteen minutes. They'll call your number if you want to roam the food court or scout for a table.
Malatang cooked and ready
When your number is called, your cooked malatang will be ready to pick up in a bright red melamine bowl. You can also get it to takeaway in plastic containers if you prefer (tell them when you order).
Explanation of sauces
Next comes the saucing ritual. A small sign above the buffet explains the sauces you can choose.
Sauce station of garlic, pepper oil, sugar, chilli sauce and sesame paste
Basically I'd just accept everything. Staff know what they're doing and unless you have a huge aversion to something, they all contribute a complementing flavour profile to your final soup.
Adding Chinkiang black vinegar
They'll ladle on a huge spoonful of garlic sauce, sesame paste, Chinese pepper oil, sugar and a generous slosh of Chinkiang black vinegar. That's the same vinegar you combine with soy sauce for xiao long bao soup dumplings.
Ask for chilli sauce on the side
You can request varying levels of heat for your soup but the most fool proof method is to ask for the chilli sauce on the side. We found this sauce to be volcanic in heat and barely used a teaspoonful between the four of us (this was stop one on a night that involved four dinner stops around Chinatown).
Ask for extra bowls if you're sharing and then hightail it back to your table.
Mixing all the sauces
Use your chopsticks to mix all the sauces so everything is combined really well. Then dig in.
There's a rib-sticking heartiness to the beef soup, amplified by the spicy, sweet, sour and salty notes of the added sauces. And even though it looks like there's a heap of garlic in there, it's far from pervading. There's no harshness of garlic. Instead it quietly hums in the background.
The soup has a complexity of spices that includes cloves, star anise, ginger. The numbing sensation from Sichuan pepper is strangely addictive. You don't necessarily have to drink the soup either. Many just eat the hot pot ingredients and use the soup as a kind of sauce.
We went with vermicelli noodles that soaked up the soup brilliantly. Advanced players at this game will start playing off ingredients by weight in order to maximise value. That's the Asian aunty in me talking.
For fast and cheap winter warming, malatang is hard to beat. Bring your mates, go all in, and expect a squabble over who gets the last fish ball.
Yang Guo Fu Ma La Tang
Shop B9, Dixon House Food Court
413–415 Sussex Street, Haymarket
Tel: +61 (0)414 388 878 / +61 (0)431 317 777
Open daily 10.30am-8.30pm
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6/01/2016 12:19:00 am