Mala. That word conjures up a whole sensory picture in my mind of Sichuan spiciness and heat.
Mala 麻辣 means numbing spiciness, coming from Sichuan pepper. The kind of nose-watering, eye-running chili that also makes your tongue and gums numb and tingling, but add just one extra la and you have malala 麻辣辣, which means searing pain.
Getting the picture about the kind of spiciness we’re talking about now?
Mala tang 麻辣汤 on the other hand just means spicy soup, spicy and delicious rather than spicy and potentially painful, a Sichuan import that has made its way all around China as a massively popular street food.
Mala tang is a do-it-yourself street food, which adds enormously to the fun of eating it. Vendors provide the broth, the ingredients, and the condiments, you simply decide what you would like in your soup and they cook it for you.
I had seen these joints all over Shanghai for well over a year, usually with long lunchtime queues and busy as hell, but had no idea how it all worked. Once my Chinese improved and I finally figured it out I was so cross at myself that I hadn’t tried it sooner, so for those who’ve never tried it….
Here’s how it works:
1. Grab a basket from the stack near the front of the shop and start filling it. Your basket will likely have a small plastic tag with your number on it. Remember it!
2. Choose some dried noodles – flat, vermicelli, thin and add them to your basket
3. Choose your greens, mushrooms and tofu of choice, add them to the basket. I like a very mushroomy broth, and there are usually four or five types to choose from.
4. Choose some savoury meaty balls on a stick. These are fish balls (white) chicken balls (pinky white) beef balls (pink) sausage balls (brighter pink) or pork balls (pink). I have no idea what the bright yellow ones are, but I look forward to hearing from one of you who might know.
5. Take your completed basket to the cashier, the person who is not cooking the soup. She will add up your ingredients to give you a final cost, usually 10-15 yuan/bowl (around $1.50- $2.50)
6. Now wait until your basket, on the bottom, reaches the top of the cooking queue. While you’re waiting you could ask the cashier to add extras – bean sprouts, silken tofy cubes, blood cubes, for an extra fee. I usually skip the blood cubes. Totally up to you.
7. Watch the soup cook prepare your bowl. In her cauldron is a rich, spicy soup stock made fragrant with sichuan pepper and chilies, plus all the things that have been cooked in it over the course of the day.
Around the edge of the pot are numerous cylindrical wire baskets hooked to the edge. One of these will be your cooking basket, and this is how the cook can make eight bowls at once without mixing up the ingredients.
A master of cooking times, the cook will add items to your wire basket in the correct cooking order, noodles and meatballs first, lettuce and fragile greens last, so everything is perfectly cooked.
9. The cook will spoon your basket’s cooked contents into a bowl, add a big ladleful of the spicy soup, and call out your number so you can collect it.
10. Add condiments to taste – la jiao chili paste, dark vinegar, sesame oil, sesame paste, scallions, coriander. All up to you. These might be together on a counter at the entrance to the seated area, or in individual pots on your table.
11. Take a seat, slurp and enjoy.
Where to find mala tang in Shanghai:
Mala tang shops are literally all over town. All over China in fact, being one of winter’s favourite street foods.
Look for the steaming soup pot out front, a cabinet full of fresh greens and things on sticks, and a long queue.
My local mala tang is great, and very clean and friendly。
Xiu La Tang 庥辣烫
607 Nanchang Lu
Street Foods of Shanghai!
Number 3 Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4 Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5 Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6 Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7 Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 14 Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 16 Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 21 Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes
Number 22 Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23 Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26 Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27 Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28 Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29 Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice